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Free Wi-Fi in the air in Burbank

Fiber optics cables in Burbank

Electrician apprentice Ryan Sanderson finishes up a splice case that will bring fiber optics into a video business on the 2300 block of Victory Blvd. in Burbank on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015. The splice case will connect to a patch panel inside the business.

(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Last month, coinciding with Burbank students returning to school, Burbank Water and Power made free wireless broadband Internet service available throughout the city on a “best efforts/as-is” basis, using the city’s existing Wi-Fi network, which is used to collect usage data from electric and water meters.

The service uses available network capacity to allow anyone in the city using a laptop, smartphone or other device to access the Internet, but there are no service level guarantees. Coverage for community use may be spotty in some areas, while in others, it may quickly become overloaded with users.

“It’s just out there if you can get it,” Ron Davis, the utility’s general manager, told the City Council last week.

However, the system that forms the backbone for the service offers powerful, reliable Internet services to paying business customers throughout Burbank, including several studios and post-production companies.

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Dubbed Optical Network Enterprise or ONE Burbank, the service provides high-speed Internet services across the fiber-optic infrastructure that was built for the city’s smart meter system, said John Cassidy, telecommunications and facilities manager with the city’s utility.

It uses “dark fiber,” the unused capacity in the fiber-optic cables, which transmit information using light, as opposed to copper wire that transmits data using electricity, while generating revenue for the city, he said. There are non-studio customers, but Cassidy said the program wouldn’t be as profitable without the studios.

“They’re our best customers,” he said.

Warner Bros. was the first dark-fiber customer back in 1997, he said, and the Walt Disney Co. followed in 1998. ONE Burbank’s “speed-of-light” data services replaced the slower and less secure “sneaker net” in which messengers used to carry materials back and forth from the studios to the production houses.

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And it can do things messengers can’t. Cassidy said several years ago he watched a Burbank-based Disney post-production team work on the film “TRON: Legacy” using a dedicated connection on the city’s fiber network to connect with teams in Chicago and Northern California for a real-time editing session.

Last year, ONE Burbank generated $3.4 million in revenues for the utility, Davis said in May. That’s compared to roughly $205,000 in 1997 and about $1.5 million five years ago, according to data Davis presented to the City Council.

“The bulk of that [$3.4 million] is all margin and helps keep electric rates down,” Davis said. “[We do] basically zero marketing and collect that margin.”

The service also saved the city more than $480,000 by providing broadband service for city departments at a 95% discount, he said, adding that it saved the school district $330,000.

Cassidy said that when the city first proposed connecting the schools three years ago, it was able to more than quadruple the bandwidth while cutting the cost to the school district from $18,000 a year to $9,000. The fiber installation is being “piggy-backed” on the utility’s recycled water installs at the schools to reduce the set-up costs.

By 2017, all Burbank schools will be connected, said Ann Avrashow, an administrative technician at the utility.

City officials have said the service has attracted some businesses and helped keep others in Burbank. Some local leaders also hope it could attract the kinds of technology companies that have turned Santa Monica into “Silicon Beach.”

Mary Hamzoian, the city’s economic development manager, said the city is “constantly touting” ONE Burbank to promote itself as media and tech friendly.

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Louis Talamantes, president of Buddy’s All Stars, said his business has been using the service for about 18 months. While it’s more expensive than the prior service provider, he said, it makes up for it in reliability. The Internet would go down three or four times a month, sometimes for half a day, with his previous provider.

Though he was skeptical at first, Talamantes said the service “delivered” and he’s had no downtime with ONE Burbank, allowing him to keep his 24 employees productive, and it’s helped keep up morale.

Talamantes, whose older brother is Councilman Jess Talamantes, said if the utility is providing a better service than commercial providers and turning a profit, his advice is “market the sucker and sell the heck out of it.”


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