05.29.2014Personal Tech

Building a 41-story FiOS Network in New York City

Every Building is Different. That’s the Real Challenge. You Can’t Standardize Much of Anything.

Just four hours elapsed from the time a Verizon technician arrived at George Swartz’s 12th-floor apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side till his FiOS service was up and running. The full installation, however, took dozens of people hundreds of hours spread across several months.

How can it possibly take several hundred hours to bring video and Internet to one dwelling?

The answer helps explain why Verizon’s $3-billion project to bring FiOS to New York City ranks among the more ambitious infrastructure initiatives in recent history. FiOS is a new system, based on fiber-optic technology, entirely separate from the massive network that took Verizon’s corporate ancestors more than a century to build.

Verizon faced every obstacle that a start-up would face when it decided to start from scratch, with the very first wire, and reconnect the city’s more than 1 million buildings. Digging through the streets and avenues of the city and installing some 89 million feet, or about 17,000 miles — more than enough to bury a wire stretching from New York to Los Angeles — was a very visible challenge.

The Invisible Challenge

But the far bigger challenge is entirely invisible. Nearly every building in New York predates FiOS, so Verizon must do far more to begin service than connect a cable to the wires that already run behind building walls. It has to build a miniature FiOS network inside each of New York City’s buildings. Bringing FiOS to Swartz’s building began by meeting the condominium board that controls access to the structure.

Verizon brought a team of experts to a board meeting, answered questions and, some time later, secured permission to send in a design team.The designers then tried to devise the most elegant and efficient way to run fiber optics through the 41 floors of this particular building and came back with a plan several weeks later. Verizon presented the plan at the next board meeting, where the board demanded several tweaks that sent the engineers back to the drawing board. When both sides finally agreed on a plan, lawyers for them both eyed the contracts, and only when those were signed did the physical work begin.

And that was a comparatively smooth and easy process.

Many such buildings require Verizon to attend more meetings, exchange more counteroffers, tweak more designs and generally overcome more obstacles. Imagine going through that at 10 buildings. 100 buildings. Now imagine doing it at thousands of buildings. Many thousands of buildings.

To bring FiOS to Swartz’s building, Verizon had to bring the fiber from the street to the basement, install a network control cabinet, and then design and build a vertical pathway to reach up 41 floors.  Once on each floor, the fiber wires  were concealed  under a molding that blended with the building’s decor through every hallway, on every floor. Once the wires extended through the public parts of the building, each installation request required detailed efforts to hide boxes out of sight and disguise the wires running along the walls and baseboards.

Incredibly difficult?

To the contrary, it was one of the easiest high-rises that Scott Kisthart, the Verizon manager in charge of Upper East Side installations had ever undertaken.

“Most of the other buildings are larger and have more complicated floor plans,” he said. “But every building is different. That’s the real challenge. You can’t standardize much of anything.” Providing FiOS service is thus a massive undertaking. To Swartz, however, the installation looked surprisingly easy. “I thought it would be hard to get the wire in here,” he said.