- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2001

Bulldozers and jackhammers out west are being replaced by robots that may arrive in the District of Columbia by spring.
Silver Spring, Md.-based CityNet Telecommunications Co. reached an agreement last week with the city of Indianapolis to install fiber-optic cable lines in its sewer system. Much of the work will be done by robots capable of crawling through narrow sewer lines.
The privately owned 2-year-old company is negotiating a similar agreement with the District, and a deal could be in place by spring, CityNet Chief Executive Officer Robert Berger said yesterday.
"We're hoping to get a deal done before digging season starts," said Mr. Berger, who is a member of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which oversees Prince George's (Md.) and Montgomery (Md.) counties' water and sewer service.
An agreement would be big news for the District, where companies looking to install cable lines have torn up street after street in recent years. The situation has become so bad that the city clamped a moratorium on the digging last summer.
"From the city's standpoint, [digging] has a major impact," said Dan Tangherlini, acting director of the D.C. Department of Transportation, who is dealing directly with the company. "We're working very hard with CityNet."
Washington is one of 12 cities negotiating with the company. Omaha, Neb., and Albuquerque, N.M., reached agreements with CityNet last year.
CityNet connects the cable to the buildings themselves and often replaces copper wires that aren't conducive to running a high-speed network. This allows cities a way to avoid tearing up streets and sidewalks to install fiber-optic cable. CityNet earns money from businesses that lease the cable.
Indianapolis officials called the agreement with CityNet an obvious solution.
"The main reason for our agreement with CityNet, obviously, is that it provides us with fiber-optic cables," said Steve Campbell, director of communications for the Indianapolis mayor's office. "Usually, when you put in fiber optics, you have to disrupt the normal way of life."
In Omaha, Neb., officials were equally excited, because they said it would provide downtown businesses the fiber-optic cables they demand without further cluttering the area.
"The biggest thing from our standpoint is that the downtown area is literally littered with utilities," said Dennis Wilson, assistant to the mayor of Omaha.
He said Omaha was attractive to CityNet because it was moderately sized, and CityNet would have no problem finding carriers to lease the fiber-optic cables once they are installed. And, CityNet officials noted, Omaha has more telephone switches than any other city in the nation.
The 6-inch wide, 36-inch long robots used by CityNet are nicknamed SAM, for Sewer Access Module. They are manufactured by Ka-Te, a 20-year-old Swiss company with expertise in sewer maintenance. To install the cables in small sewer lines, the robots place steel-alloy rings around the inside of the sewer pipe, spaced several feet apart. The cable lines are attached to the rings with conduits. In larger sewer pipes, humans on special protective sleds would be used instead of robots.
Each robot system costs about $750,000, and CityNet has options on about 100, with production from Ka-Te growing "exponentially," according to CityNet executives. Other CityNet partners include Alcatel and CableRunner.
Mr. Berger said officials in Indianapolis, Omaha and Albuquerque allowed the agreements to pass through the city legislature with ease.
"They were willing to streamline the process to make sure things kept moving," he said, adding that negotiations with D.C. officials were progressing similarly.
"We appear to be down to the short strokes of negotiations," he said. "We first met with [Mayor Anthony A. Williams] last year, who was very intrigued and interested, obviously because he's looking for all the benefits."
Those benefits, if the agreement is similar with those made with previous cities, would include a $50,000 upfront payment for giving CityNet access to its sewers and 2.5 percent of the revenue CityNet earns from those leasing the fiber-optic lines.
D.C. officials would not say when an agreement with CityNet could be reached but acknowledged strong interest in working with the company, if for no other reason than to curb the number of streets being torn up.
"[CityNet offers] the kind of new thinking we're excited about here," Mr. Tangherlini said. "Ideas like the CityNet idea are ways of minimizing the next step."
He said the District was caught off guard by the increase in companies competing for use of fiber-optic lines. In 1996, the city received 59 permit requests from four companies, he said. Last year, the number of requests rose to 427, while the city remained equipped to allow fewer than 60.
Technology analysts were generally positive about CityNet's business, too.
"The nice thing about a sewer is that no one's really fighting over them right now," said Maribel Dolinov, an analyst with Forrester Research, a Massachusetts-based technology analysis firm. "And in some places, there will be no more digging up of the ground."
But other analysts pointed out that the dearth of available robots means only 3 percent to 5 percent of most cities' sewers would be used, leaving many buildings, particularly those not near a downtown-type cluster, without access to the cables. Others questioned the long-term durability of fiber-optic cables in sewer pipes.
In response to the durability concerns, CityNet executives pointed to Hamburg, Germany, where the technology has been tested for the past two years.
"This is a proven technology. There is a confidence in what we do," said Lee Allentuck, CityNet manager of communications.
As for the robots, Mr. Berger said, "This is not an automated, stamp-them-out kind of thing. These robots are very sophisticated high-end machines. In the end, they are hand-assembled by very specialized technicians."

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