Creating Critical Connections: Hugh O’Kane Electric Co. Inc. works on LinkNYC, one of the world’s largest public Wi-Fi networks

Hugh O'Kane Electric employees at work on a LinkNYC kiosk | Hugh O'Kane Electric Co. Inc.
Hugh O'Kane Electric employees at work on a LinkNYC kiosk | Hugh O'Kane Electric Co. Inc.
Published On
Sep 15, 2022

According to an article in Network World, Wi-Fi is “indispensable” for personal and professional connectivity in today’s fast-paced society and represents the heartbeat and central technology of the information age.

Perhaps no one knows this more than the team at Hugh O’Kane Electric Co. Inc., a contractor doing telecommunications installation, electrical maintenance/emergency response and electrical contracting services for institutions in and around New York City.

Based in Long Island City, N.Y., the company’s technicians “have unparalleled knowledge about New York City’s electric and communications infrastructure, and we’re leading the way when it comes to the expansion of 5G and Wi-Fi services in the New York metropolitan area,” said Hugh R. O’Kane, president of the third-generation family business that he currently leads with his brother John, the company’s COO.

Founded by their grandfather, Hugh O’Kane Sr., in 1946, “our company started out serving the printing industry in New York, but when our father and uncle took over the company in the mid-1970s, they transitioned us to a more commercially focused electrical contracting firm working for developers, construction managers and general contractors,” O’Kane said.

“In the mid-1980s, our work for Western Union got us into the telecom field supporting Teleport, one of the original fiber optic systems designed to support New York City’s telephone and communication needs. Our firm built the original pieces of Teleport dating back to 1986, which helped us get our foot in the telecom world,” he said.

While O’Kane noted that competitive local exchange carriers took off in the mid-1990s (only for many to bust in the early 2000s), “a lot of enterprise carriers now known as AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink and Crown Castle started bringing broadband capabilities to New York City, and we were among the largest provider of services to them,” he said. “We were essentially their workforce in the field—doing their capital builds, 24/7 maintenance and fusion splicing, which involves fusing glass to glass to create the lowest latency possible.”

“In the last 10–15 years, a lot of these companies have become infrastructure providers for the wireless carriers driving the devices in our hands, all supported by an underlying fiber network,” O’Kane said. “Today, based on the explosion in handheld wireless devices, a large percentage of the fiber we build and maintain for our customers is in support of wireless initiatives, all of which require antennas and an underlying fiber optic system.”

Supported by a team of 180 employees, “We service the five boroughs of New York City as well as Long Island; Westchester County, N.Y.; Fairfield County, Conn.; and northern New Jersey, with several industrial spaces to store heavy vehicles and warehouse fiber for customers,” O’Kane said. “We’re an IBEW contractor and have signed agreements with Local 3 in New York City, Local 25 on Long Island and Local 164 in North Jersey.”

Most recently, Hugh O’Kane Electric’s specialized skills in fiber optic networks helped support ZenFi Networks (in partnership with ZenFi’s customer CityBridge, a consortium of leading experts in technology, media, connectivity and the user experience) in a prominent project to upgrade LinkNYC, one of the world’s largest public Wi-Fi networks.

Fiber optic technicians from Hugh O'Kane Electric work in the New York City streets. | Hugh O'Kane Electric Co. Inc.
Fiber optic technicians from Hugh O'Kane Electric work in the New York City streets.
Hugh O'Kane Electric Co. Inc.
 

Keeping New York City connected

According to the City of New York and CityBridge, “LinkNYC is a first-of-its-kind communications network designed to replace pay phones across the five boroughs with new structures called Links.” Originally paid for by digital advertising on its platform, “each Link provides super-fast, free public Wi-Fi, phone calls, device charging and a tablet for access to city services, maps and directions.”

“Several years back, New York City put out an RFP to replace pay phones on the streets, because everyone has a cellphone today. Those old booths had no commercial value anymore except for the advertising opportunity on their exterior,” O’Kane said. “As a public benefit, CityBridge replaced many of these booths with kiosks offering both digital ad capabilities and free Wi-Fi. These kiosks are roughly 9 feet high with a digital ad panel on each side, a Wi-Fi antenna on top to receive a signal and a tablet that offers free calling and USB connections to enable people to charge their devices.”

According to O’Kane, his team was brought into the project by their customer, ZenFi Networks, a New York-based wireless infrastructure provider that supports mobile technologies through such services as wireless siting, offload and roaming, fiber connectivity and network edge colocation.

“Making Wi-Fi available to New Yorkers requires a fiber optic connection for the digital signal that goes to all of these kiosks,” he said.

As one of several contractors involved in the project since 2015, “we built the underlying fiber optic networks below the city streets to service these kiosks, running large, main fiber cables known as the ‘backbone’ and laterals that run fiber optic cable from the backbone to each kiosk,” O’Kane said.

Relative to the copper and coaxial technologies that preceded it, O’Kane confirmed that fiber optic cable offers many benefits.

“With previous approaches, there were physical limitations on the amount of information you could transmit and the speed with which you could transmit it, but fiber optic technology essentially involves the transmission of light through glass that travels at the speed of light,” he said. “We ultimately ran fiber optic cable to over 1,850 kiosks and installed over 1.2 million linear feet of fiber optic cable for this project to date.”

Addressing the digital divide

In a society where remote work, school, telehealth and other virtual connections have grown exponentially, the demands on the broadband network have increased in unexpected ways, and New York City has become more committed than ever to ensuring that its telecom system meets its rising needs and is available to everyone.

“A lot of New York City neighborhoods don’t have sufficient networks yet,” O’Kane said of a reality that recently led to the city’s launch of “Link5G,” the newest phase of the LinkNYC project. In addition to free Wi-Fi, he said, “Link5G will now offer 5G connectivity, with priority given to underserved areas throughout the five boroughs.”

“Accessible broadband and phone service isn’t a luxury—it’s a necessity—and these new Link5G kiosks are going to finally help close the digital divide and expand and improve mobile technology coverage all over the city,” said New York City Mayor Eric Adams during a press conference to kick off the project in July 2022.

Hugh O'Kane Electric's warehouse in Long Island City, N.Y. | Hugh O'Kane Electric Co. Inc.
Hugh O'Kane Electric's warehouse in Long Island City, N.Y.
Hugh O'Kane Electric Co. Inc.

To support the newest Link5G installations, 90% of which will be focused on locations in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and above 96th Street in Manhattan, “there will be a need for more antennas with 5G capacity, because there’s so much more bandwidth traveling through the air,” O’Kane said. “The new kiosk structure to support this is taller and has been redesigned to accommodate equipment from multiple wireless carriers on each link antenna, and we’ll be the contractor running the backbone fiber and lateral branches to all of these links and doing any of the necessary splicing work required.”

In addition to the 1,850 kiosks the company has already connected, “the new Link5G phase will involve another 2,000 links throughout the five boroughs—all of which will offer free Wi-Fi, some of which will have ad capabilities, and others of which are designed for 5G distribution,” O’Kane said.

Regardless of the option provided, “the residents of New York City will receive huge benefits from this equitable distribution project—from stronger connections through wireless service to greater bandwidth and better telecom services overall,” he said.

“Twenty years ago, people regularly endured dropped calls due to gaps in the system and, much more recently, many people struggled at home with glitchy digital connections under the strain of remote work and home schooling. In 2022, there are still digital deserts in New York City, the most populated city in America, but the Link5G project will help prevent underserved neighborhoods from having a diminished experience due to a poor network connection.”

Supporting New York City’s future

While he acknowledged the difficulties of working in New York City’s underground conduit and manhole system, where unused cable and copper lines create an extremely densely packed environment, “we know where the clogged sections are and how to work around them and reroute them,” O’Kane said.

“Our institutional knowledge of New York City’s underground fiber optic infrastructure is unparalleled—we were there to help build the original networks in the mid-1980s and have been there as a first responder ever since to help customers remain connected through such New York City catastrophes as the 1993 terrorist bombing, the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, the 2003 blackout and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.”

The Hugh O’Kane Electric team is also on top of the most high-performing products in the market.

“For example, due to the high-density network architecture needed to support 5G applications, we began placing high-count fiber optic cables,” O’Kane said. “Recent innovations have created a 1,728-strand backbone cable with the same outer dimension as traditional 432- or 864-strand backbone cables, and our crews placed and spliced some of the first 1,728-strand cable in the New York Metro area for the LinkNYC network.”

As Hugh O’Kane Electric faces the prospect of connecting an additional 10,000 5G sites in New York City in the upcoming years (based on the city’s projected broadband needs), O’Kane is confident about his team’s unique skills and ability to scale up.

“Based on our critical mass of highly trained technicians and fleet of over 100 vehicles (including everything from service vans to mobile splice labs, reel carriers, bucket trucks and winch/compressor trucks to pull/blow fiber) as well as our extensive warehouse space and financial wherewithal, we’re well-positioned to address all of the future activity,” he said. “We can support a project of any size because we have decades of experience and success in this space.”

Among his favorite parts of the job, “I like the fact that we work with interesting people every day and get to build something tangible,” O’Kane said. “Our father used to show us projects that he and our grandfather had built in New York City, and I now do that with my kids, too. John and I are proud of the fact that we’re doing something that’s truly benefiting millions of people in New York City across the economic spectrum in a way that few other projects have the magnitude to do and helping to create connections that have become so intrinsic to people’s lives. We’re excited to help build and maintain the technology that will support New York City’s future, and we know that we’re also honoring the legacy that our grandfather started.”

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