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Archive for Sunday, December 20, 1998

December 20, 1998

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A high-tech communications infrastructure is coming down Kansas Highway 10 and interstate routes in the state.

As part of a barter deal with the state Department of Transportation, a St. Louis company is expected to soon begin laying strands of high-capacity, fiber-optic cable along Kansas Highway 10 between Kansas City and Lawrence and from here west and south paralleling major interstate routes that cross the state.

If work is completed as scheduled by January 2000, Lawrence and environs will have access to a new and powerful digital communications infrastructure, and highway officials will have the electronic backbone they need for so-called "smart highways."

Coming in 2001

Smart highways, or Intelligent Transportation Systems as KDOT officials prefer to call them, are roads constantly monitored at manned traffic control centers via remote-control sensors and robot cameras. Under terms of the state's deal with Digital Teleport Inc. of St. Louis, once the company completes laying fiber optic lines, Kansas smart roads soon follow.

"The Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) will be operational, we're projecting, by midyear 2001," said Matthew Volz, smart-highway coordinator for KDOT. "We'll have a manned operations center able to monitor traffic conditions and roadways via closed-circuit TV and traffic detection devices. If we find an incident on a roadway, we'll be able to inform emergency-response people and put messages up on (electronic) message boards warning of accidents (or other traffic conditions) and advising alternate routes."

Fiber-optic lines are essential to smart highways, Volz said, because, unlike other hardware, they are capable of carrying the massive volumes of digital data needed to link optical and sensory devices with their remote controllers.

The deal KDOT made with DTI, unlike most KDOT contracts with vendors, is based on barter, not cash. KDOT cedes highway rights of way to DTI for the company's own commercial-traffic fiber-optic lines. In exchange, DTI builds and maintains for KDOT the operational fiber-optic lines needed to make smart highways work along with enough surplus capacity to handle KDOT's anticipated future needs. DTI also builds system-access boxes or "hand holes" for KDOT at each highway interchange along the fiber-optic routes.

DTI spokesman Richard Weinstein was unavailable for comment about the project, but Volz said the company has said it plans to sell or lease the fiber-optic capacity or "band width" it builds to third-party users much the same way that other companies that are "common carriers" of information do.

K-10 corridor to benefit

News of the new telecom lines along K-10 was greeted warmly by Richard Caplan, director of the K-10 Assn., a business group that for several years has been promoting the route between Lawrence and Kansas City as a high-tech or "Smart Corridor."

"We're in the process right now of mapping all the fiber-optic lines currently in the K-10 corridor," Caplan said. "The availability in places like East Hills business park and other areas along the corridor means we're more competitive. Even low-tech businesses are increasingly dependent on high-speed transmission of information. The more wired we become, the more services will be available to more people."

DTI is building for the future, Caplan said.

"It's not going to hook up everybody instantly, but overall it's going in a direction we're supportive of," he said.

Volz said there were "few" companies interested in bidding for the highway rights of way, which KDOT granted to DTI not only along K-10 but also in Kansas City and west from Lawrence via U.S. Highway 24 to Topeka and then following Interstate 70. The agency also ceded interstate rights of way to DTI south from Salina on I-135 to Wichita and from Wichita to the Oklahoma border along I-35.

But despite KDOT's pleasure with the deal struck, it didn't happen without some bruised feelings among some Kansas-based telecommunications vendors and legislators.

"The award went to an out-of-state company," noted Nelson Krueger, former director of the Kansas Telecommunications Consortium, "although several Kansas companies such as Kansas City Fibernet, now TCG, and ValuLine of Kansas were also interested."

When the contract was first let for bid more than a year ago, State Rep. Jim Morrison, R-Colby, criticized KDOT for not including provisions that would have allowed free, public fiber-optic links between rural communities along the highways where rights of way were granted.

Morrison argued that the lines would have improved rural information links for things such as telemedicine and Internet access.

-- Mike Shields' phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is mshields@ljworld.com.

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