Dakota County is Fiber Rich Thanks to Dig Once Approach - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 117

Calls for "dig once" policies have resonated for years. The general idea is that we can more fiber and conduit in the ground at lower prices if we coordinate to include them in various projects that already disturb the ground. In the south Twin Cities metro in Minnesota, Dakota County has been tweaking its dig once approach for more than a decade. This week, Network Collaboration Engineer David Asp and .Net Systems Analyst Rosalee McCready join us to discuss their approach to maximizing all opportunities to get fiber and conduit in the ground. 

They work in a county that ranges from rural farms in the south to urban cities in the north, offering lessons for any local government. We discuss the award-winning software they developed to coordinate projects and the many benefits of the network that have already produced millions of dollars in savings. And now the county is examining how it can use its fiber to spur economic development and investment in better Internet access for area residents. 

Read the transcript from our discussion here. We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address. This show is 18 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Find more episodes in our podcast index

Thanks to The Bomb Busters for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Good To Be Alone."



David Asp:  There's got to be key people who have the knowledge base to be able to see to it that things get done.


Lisa Gonzalez:  Hi, and welcome to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.  This is Lisa Gonzalez.

David Asp, Network Collaboration Engineer for Dakota County, and Rosalee McCready, .Net Systems Analyst, join Chris this week to talk about the county's fiber optic network.  Serving schools, libraries, and a long list of public facilities, the network keeps operations coordinated, while saving public dollars.  One of the factors that helped community leaders expand the reach of the network is a long-standing "dig-once" policy, and the culture that has emanated from it.  Recognizing the savings, benefits, and value of "dig-once" to other entities working in Dakota County personnel developed any and all opportunities to collaborate.  Chris, David, and Rosalee discuss the inspiration for establishing the collaborative approach that led to the network's success.  For some communities, especially in rural areas, smart policies, like "dig-once," collaboration, and innovation are a must for a successful result.


Chris Mitchell:  Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.  I'm Chris Mitchell.  And today I'm speaking with two folks from a little bit south of me, in the Dakota County Department of Information Technology.  I've got David Asp, a Network Collaboration Engineer.  Welcome to the show.


David Asp:  Thank you.


Chris:  And Rosalee McCready, .Net Systems Analyst.  Welcome to the show.


Rosalee McCready:  Thank you.


Chris:  Well, I'm very excited to have both of you on, because, frankly, there's a lot of talk about "dig-once" type approaches.  And I think some of it is aspirational, and a lot of it really hasn't been figured out, in many cases.  But Dakota County has it going on.  And at a recent event I was at, I said -- and I believe it's true -- that if every county had people like you doing the things you've been doing, we would not have a broadband problem in this country -- certainly not to the extent that we do.  So, let's dig into that a little bit.  Rosalee, will you tell us the name of this software that you've developed for the county?


Rosalee:  The name is One Stop Roadway Permit Shop.


Chris:  This is -- it's fascinating, because it's one of those things that I think really gets down into the trenches of how to make a difference, and coordinate all the different things that are going on, making sure we have every opportunity to get fiber and conduit into the roads and under the streets at an affordable price when the roads are open.  So, let me just start by asking you, David, what is the problem that this software solved?


David:  A couple years ago, we had a company called Zayo that came in and was trying to coordinate countywide to put in 4G wireless for several of the big providers.  They're a construction company.  And they wanted to put in permits, and we didn't have a good system to have every city in the county, plus the county -- because there's jurisdictions that have rights-of-way.  And some are next to each other.  And some are county roads; some are state roads.  And it got to be overwhelming, of everybody trying to attend all the meetings.  And we wanted to try to look at Google's approach of -- some of what Google is asked is -- how can things be streamlined for permitting?  So, that's the approach that we looked at -- how could we work with the cities and the county and try to develop a web system -- page -- that -- it's a one-stop roadway -- permitting stop -- where you just enter in the data, and the data will automatically send out e-mails, then, to the proper people, so that people can ask for their permits, and they don't need to have all of these meetings and phone calls and every -- you know, trying to get a hold of numerous people.


Chris:  So, one side of this would be that the -- a company like Zayo, it's much easier for them to get the permission that they need to be in the right-of-way to lay fiber.


David:  Correct.  And the other part of it is, each one of the cities can then have a simpler method.  The web link on their page, and the county on their page, and everybody goes to one location and they fill out one form, and it's very simplified.


Chris:  And then, a different benefit, I would think, would be that more people would be notified than would otherwise be the case.  If Zayo was just alerting people in Lakeville that it was going to be opening up a trench, now, because they've filled this form out, you would know, whereas before, you might not know, as a county official.  Is that right?


David:  Yes.  We have our transportation department working more -- and a lot of the city engineers working more with the county.  And we know what's taking place.  And can better collaborate on this and other projects.  So that we can plan ahead, using our capital improvement budget, to know what's coming.  And it is a -- you know, the process is quicker and easier to do.


Chris:  Now, I'm curious, Rosalee.  You helped to design this software and write it.  What were some of the challenges?  I mean, in my mind, I would think, don't -- isn't this software already out there?


Rosalee:  There is software that is out there.  The only problem with it is, you pay a vendor a specified amount every single month.  And it's one form.  And in this case, it was the utility right-of-way application.  We host twelve different permits.  We do charge each of the cities a fee to hold their data and their images -- at a drastically reduced fee.


Chris:  So you're able to do it in a much more inexpensive way, by having built it yourself.


Rosalee:  Correct.  We can do it inexpensive.  And we can do it with our rules, instead of someone else telling us what the rules should be.


Chris:  And what's an example of a rule?


Rosalee:  Some cities can only go on certain roads.  Others have open roads.  So we have different restrictions on roads.


Chris:  And so this might be based on whether it's a county road or a city road?  Or on other factors?  I'm just -- you know, it's one of those things where, I think, most of us have no idea how our cities work.


Rosalee:  [laughs]  And some of the roads -- people may think that they are county when they are actually city.  So we have a lot of directing.  So we have forwarding of permits to different cities.


Chris:  So, basically, this is a solution, then.  Because you did it yourself, it's flexible, it fits, you know, our situation here in the metro area of Minnesota.  And what's nice is that it's a lot less expensive.


Rosalee:  Correct.


Chris:  David -- I guess I want to come back to you for this -- what's happened since you've rolled out this software?  And let me just say that I know that you did get an award for it from the National Association of Counties, because it's such an effective way of solving the problem of making it easy for people to permit, and alerting the people who need to be alerted.  What have other impacts been?


David:  A lot more collaboration between the different groups.  Because we can forward and see what's going on -- where we've been working a lot more with the cities, that when a permit comes in, for a big "dig-once" type project, we can work together on it, and plan -- have some funding set aside to say, well, they're going to have the ditch open, let's work with you.  And we get more details submitted, with drawings and different other details, that can be just attached to the permit.  So there's a lot more flexibility.  And it's easier to use.  And then, more types.  Not just the right-of-way permit, but other type of -- wide vehicles, and different other types.  There's numerous types of permits that are tied into this, not just the right-of-way permit, with the utilities and other pieces.  So, the whole process is growing.


Chris:  The Cedar Avenue busway -- or Bus Rapid Transit -- that was developed -- was this permitting software ready in time for that?  And can you walk us through how it expedited that corridor?


David:  It was in the process of being developed at that time.  It wasn't implemented.  I tried to coordinate with the cities independently, as part of it, and the county had the consultants, and we worked to put in four-inch conduit, besides the county's two-inch conduit, so that Apple Valley, in Minnesota, and Lakeville -- each one of the towns as it progressed -- we were able to put in larger conduit.  And then, Dakota Electric, the local electricity company, we put conduit around their electrical lines.  So, we coordinated, and more collaboration of what was taking place at the time.


Chris:  This is good example, then, of how, along this very important road that goes through the county and through these different towns, that was being rebuilt for a transit project, you were able to make sure everyone was on the same page.  You were able to put in a lot of fiber.  You lowered the cost for all kinds of people.  I mean, you were telling me that Metro Transit actually needs fiber to each of those buildings that it maintains, where passengers wait.  So they can have video cameras, and they can monitor humidity.  And in case there's a leak or something like that, they can -- they can do all kinds of things.  What are some of the other impacts that come from getting this fiber in the ground, you know, in a coordinated fashion?


David:  We've had to work a lot with handing out IP addresses, because, before, we had a system where the intersections had older copper, that road salt -- because we use a lot of road salt here in Minnesota -- corroded the copper, and we would put in fiber optic cable.  We used to have to use a 1200-baud really old modem, to dial in.  Now, they're all on high-speed Ethernet -- a gigabit (thousand megabit) Ethernet between them, so we can interconnect them  And put in between 12 and 15 IP addresses, because of all of these cameras that they've got at the end of intersections.  And sensors, you know, and backup systems.  We have computer cards right in the traffic signals, so we can coordinate them, so that if a bus is running behind, in the traffic, because of heavy rain or snow, the light will see that know where the bus is, and can add a few seconds -- 7 seconds, 10 seconds -- onto the traffic light -- make the traffic get -- because we have buses that end up going to the Mall of America, and need to be on time for the light rail around the Cities.


Chris:  Now, how much of that sort of coordination is the result of the software?  Versus the fact that you've been incredibly willing to pick up the phone and build relationships with people working in IT departments around the county?


David:  I think it's a little bit of both.  Where we've used the collaboration to build this application.  And we've used relationships, that -- Rosalee, the relationship with her transportation right-of-way person.  And the other, you know, pieces, where all of our departments are working more closely together.  So, we can tie our parks in.  We can tie in our various other buildings, and coordinate, as we're putting in these traffic signals, we're coordinating to put in --  Like in Burnsville, Minnesota, we put in a line to the local DEED [Department of Employment and Economic Development] workforce center.  We also connected up a library that are along the same traffic road.  So that we can connect up schools and various other -- the zoo, and different sites -- fire stations, and different things along the same routes.  That we're putting in these traffic signals.

The application -- the One Stop Roadway Permitting -- makes it so that we have the right permits, and we can coordinate with all of the cities.  And we fill out one form, at one location.  And then everybody gets the information for which jurisdiction needs to be involved.

Some of the roads are highway roads that are county-managed.  And other roads are city.


Chris:  Right.  And if you're putting in fiber or conduit, you have to fill out the same permits as Zayo or another private provider would, right?


David:  Correct.  And I try to coordinate with the cities, so that the city managers know ahead of time what's taking place.


Chris:  OK.  So, I live north of you, in Ramsey County -- the smallest county in Minnesota by size.  But we haven't been able to get anywhere close to this level of sophistication.  I'm really curious -- and, Rosalee, the software that you've developed, is that something that other counties could use?


Rosalee:  It is.  And I'm going to tread lightly.  The person who runs our transportation area, it was -- I call it his brainchild.  Because it was his.  If he wasn't the one who pushed it, it probably would have never been developed.  And it was a lot to do with his coordination, and his personal experience, and his relationships with the other cities, and the engineers.  He also coordinates with the state engineers.  And the state has expressed interest in it.  The only problem with that is, we're only allowed to share so far.  We could, possibly, if a software company were to purchase it from us, then it could be distributed farther.  But because that hasn't happened, it's very intrinsic with us and the cities within Dakota County.


Chris:  So, even if it's not possible to take this specific software, I would think that probably you would be willing to at least share your expertise and lessons learned with other counties.  And maybe they'd be able to develop it themselves, or, you know, even work with a third party, to develop something that would be generally available.


Rosalee:  Correct.  We have had a third-party vendor come in and express interest in developing it themselves.  And I haven't heard back on if they are going to, or if they have started.  But we did give them our expertise on how to start it.  We have also had additional counties -- Washington County, Carver County, and a few of our southern counties have expressed interest.  And one of them was able to get a copy of it for free, under a different director.


Chris:  [laughs]  That's how things usually work.


Rosalee:  [laughs]  Hardly know it happens -- and develop.


Chris:  One of the things that I just really appreciate is getting into the nuts and bolts, because, frankly, I think, it really gives us a better sense of where things work, and where they don't.  Rather than just saying, yeah, everyone should have a "dig-once" policy, getting a sense of how you do it, I think.  And we've only scratched the surface here, with a piece of it.  But it's very helpful.  And so, I want to thank you both for coming on this show.

And I want to give you a chance to -- is there anything else that you want to note about this?  David, before I give you the mike, let me just say that you and I could talk about this for hours and hours of shows, and I think you would not repeat yourself even once, with the things that are going on in Dakota County.  And the incredible network that's been built connecting all the schools and libraries.  But is there a main take-away you might offer other counties?


David:  I think people is the big -- We have, as I think Rosalee pointed out, Gordon "Butch" McConnell, our right-of-way manager.  And he deserves a lot of credit, because he put a lot of effort into coordinating with all of the cities and the state, and he's done this for years.  So, the take-away that I can give is:  there's got to be key people that have the knowledge base to be able to see to it that things get done.


Chris:  Excellent.  And, Rosalee, did you have any closing comments about the sort of -- these issues?


Rosalee:  There's still ongoing issues that Gordon, and each of the additional cities that have come on board have noticed with the software.  And we're continually making improvements.  So it's good to know it's not perfect.  But we're working towards it being more user-friendly, and more able to get additional permits on-board for them.


Chris:  That's good to hear.  It's been a while since I wrote software.  But I do recall the adage that software is never finished, it's just abandoned.  So I'm glad that you're continuing to improve it, and it hasn't hit that point.


Rosalee:  No, it hasn't.


Chris:  Well, thank you both for coming on the show.


David and Rosalee:  Thank you.


Lisa:  Be sure to check out our new report, "All Hands On Deck," in which we provide detailed accounts of Dakota County's project, and eleven other Minnesota communities.

Send us your ideas for the show.  E-mail us at podcast@muninetworks.org.  You can also follow us on Twitter.  Our handle is @communitynets.  This week, we want to thank the Bomb Busters for their song, "Good To Be Alone," licensed using Creative Commons.  And thanks for listening.