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Fiber Supercharging Utilities for Today and Tomorrow

Cullman Electric Cooperative’s Mitch Loftin
(right) and Barry Garner, show students
the technology and equipment involved in
splicing fiber at a recent high school career
fair. Source: Cullman Electric Cooperative.

Utilities are no strangers to fiber, with the earliest and oldest adopters of the technology initially deploying it to support their electric grid in the 1990s. Fiber’s resilience, physical security, unlimited capacity for growth, and immunity to radio frequency interference from electrical writing made it the go-to communications medium for SCADA operations in monitoring and controlling power grids, as well as water and sewer operations. 

Today, co-ops and municipal utilities are taking their core fiber networks and using them as the keystone in delivering fiber to the residents and businesses in the communities they serve. Most often they are doing so by leveraging their own fiscal and workforce resources rather than seeking outside funding and hiring external contractors, making conservative deployment choices based on values formed over 80 to 120 years of experience in delivering power to their customers. This strategy gives them the ability to build a long-term sustainable business, albeit at a slower deployment pace than members may like. 

Fiber provides essential, secure, reliable, two-way broadband communications to enable utilities to monitor real-time electric usage and work with residences and businesses in efficiently using power for the benefit of all parties. The dynamic of power distribution has changed over the past decade and continues to evolve. Smart Grid discussions are becoming increasingly complex, with old-school, streamlined one-way generation and delivery of power being displaced by a multifaceted world full of electric vehicles and their chargers, residential and utility-scale battery storage, and a steady trickle of homeowners installing solar panels and selling back excess power to the grid. 

All the while, utilities must balance consumer and business demands for carbon reduction and sustainability with the unspoken but always understood need for reliability and resilience in delivering power in the face of extreme climate events. The adage of “fast, cheap, and good – pick any two” belays the consumer demand for wanting all three when it comes to being able to turn on the lights, operate the cash registers on Main Street, and have the connectivity vital to today’s household and business life. 

Fiber Forward spoke with utilities from around the country on the benefits fiber brings to their operations and on their experiences, struggles, and successes in adding fiber alongside the electric networks to deliver retail broadband services to the communities they serve.

144 Neighborhoods, One Neighborhood a Time

Few companies can say they were founded more than a hundred years ago, but Chicopee Electric Light (CEL) has no problem letting people know they were established in 1896 as the municipality’s utility. The community leaders of the time founded the entity because the private utility was providing unsatisfactory service according to Chicopee’s website, a theme all too familiar in the 21st century if one replaces “electric” with “broadband.”

Today serving 25,600 electric customers in the Chicopee, Mass., area, CEL lit up its first fiber in 2001. “It initially started primarily to interconnect all of the city infrastructure and all the city buildings,” said Jim Lisowski, General Manager at CEL. “Schools, City Hall, DPW, all the city buildings within the City of Chicopee, all installed at no cost to the city, interconnected all their buildings. We had some dark fiber that we leased to various companies who wanted to pass through the city, but we weren’t providing retail connectivity at that time.”

Chicopee Electric Light General Manager Jim Lisowski says the
utility is taking a methodical pay-as-you-go approach to delivering
broadband. Source: Chicopee Electric Light.

About a dozen years later, Chicopee entered into a joint venture with neighboring Holyoke Gas & Electric to provide business internet services to customers within the city limits, with Chicopee handling the last mile. Holyoke already had its internet infrastructure operational within its service area to the north, so partnering with Chicopee was a logistical move for both entities. 

By 2017, discussions in Chicopee government turned to what other services the utility could offer the city, either in a residential or business capacity. “We are basically a wires company,” said Lisowski. “Why can’t we install fiber? How much different can it be than installing electric lines all over the city? We had pole infrastructure, we had the resources to do it.”

CEL’s feasibility study and follow-on planning came back positive and led to it running a pilot residential deployment in 2019 and building up the support systems necessary to deliver broadband at scale. “We worked out the bugs during that time, found out what worked,” said Lisowski. “We actually built our own internal [BSS/OSS] telecom engine that tracks customers, installs, surveys, scheduling, people signing up, people showing interest, and everything like that.”

Building the network to cover all 25,000 customers is taking place in a deliberate and extremely granular fashion, matching buildout speed and funding to interest. “We broke up the city into 144 fiber-serving neighborhoods or FSAs and build areas based on level of interest,” said Lisowski. “If the area hits a certain threshold, they go into the potential build queue. Each year, we budget for the upcoming year to determine what areas we’re going to be targeting for the build in the next time period. We’ve been building around 25-ish neighborhoods per year, with anywhere from one hundred to a high of 250 plus customers in a neighborhood.” 

Connected Homes for Reducing Carbon

From a utility standpoint, fiber connects all the utility’s SCADA infrastructure for monitoring substations and various devices out on the distribution side. It is also being utilized as a mechanism to backhaul data from its AMI electric meters, but the two-way capability of fiber is about to become much more important in the months and years to come.

“We’re moving forward with what we call connected home, essentially allowing the customer to make intelligent decisions as to what kind of infrastructure they want to install in their home, whether it be smart thermostats, smart controlled heat pumps, batteries, or EV chargers,” said Lisowski. “In Massachusetts, decarbonization is the big catch phrase. We have mandates from the state to do so. This infrastructure will allow us to put out programs that will help us towards the goal of 100% non-carbon emitting power by 2050.”

CEL’s connected homes program will provide various incentives to opt-in to load-shaving programs for battery storage, EV chargers, and heat pump usage, with a bill reduction or a check sent to the customer monthly if they don’t use power during peak times. Reducing the load during peak times eases the load on the utility to buy or generate power using more expensive options, so it is a win for both the utility and consumers.

“Typically, our peaks run between 4 PM and 9 PM when everybody’s home, winter and summer,” said Lisowski. “During peak times, we would be sending customers signals through email, text message, or their smart thermostat asking them to say ‘Yes, I’d like to participate in this event, go ahead and turn down my devices.’ A reduction would be made on that heat pump or thermostat, or the EV charger would shift into trickle charging.”

To be eligible for a monthly bill reduction or rebate check, customers would have to opt-in to all power-savings event alerts in a particular month, receiving anywhere from a $6 to $10 credit per device depending on the type. 

Virginia is for Lovers (of Fiber)

Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative (MEC) is relatively young compared to CEL, having been founded in 1938. With 33,000 electric customers and power infrastructure distributed across nine Virginia and four North Carolina counties, it initially deployed fiber years ago to connect 21 of its substations and its three district offices. This led the co-op into deploying AMI meters and looking into providing fiber for its members as others were. 

“We went to the board and made the recommendation that we seek out some funding and extend fiber all the way down to the folks at the end of the line,” said John Lee, President and CEO of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative and its subsidiary EMPOWER Broadband. “I’ll never forget our board chairman, David Jones, saying, ‘I don’t feel like we’re doing the right thing. We’re spending our member’s money to run fiber through all of our substations and right by their homes and businesses and not   giving them the opportunity to take advantage of that resource for desperately needed broadband service.’”  

Soon after that meeting, MEC established EMPOWER and secured a $2.6 million grant from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission to start building fiber to its members, launching them into their larger broadband path funded through a series of additional grants. EMPOWER is finding great success in deploying fiber beyond its utility use, due to a combination of customer demand and proactive financial support from the state. It has connected 5,000 customers and expects to hook up many more in the near future. 

“We haven’t yet done any major marketing. Our take rate is running around mid to upper 30 percent,” said Lee. “Our initial take rate was 35% and while word of mouth is still the most powerful advertisement, we’ll begin a mass marketing campaign sometime in 2024 and fully expect to pick up an additional 10%. We understand some of our senior members haven’t yet latched onto the power and convenience of the internet, but we believe, if you don’t have it now, you’re going to need the access provided by broadband within five years. We’re looking to be around 50% [take rate] like most of the co-ops that have undertaken broadband buildout efforts here in Virginia.” 

The state has been proactive in promoting connectivity through the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI), putting state general funds as well as available federal program monies into broadband projects to close the digital divide.  

“Virginia has invested a tremendous amount of money in fiber, even before the BEAD money arrived,” Lee said. “Our latest VATI application is to backfill the remaining holes that don’t have fiber access and targeting those pockets that, for a variety of reasons, were not included in previous applications. Our service area for fiber doesn’t exactly match our electric service territory. For example, we’ll be providing service to a substantial number of Dominion Energy customers as well, through an agreement with them that allows us to utilize their middle mile fiber facilities. We do have some pockets and some outlying areas of our electric service territory where another vendor got RDOF or CAF money to service a small portion of our service area.” 

Like other electric co-ops, fiber is expected to play an increasingly important role in MEC’s demand-side management programs as consumer needs become more complex. “We’re going to have our hands full with electric vehicles,” Lee said. “EV charging stations are a growing issue in Virginia. We have to figure out how to handle charging stations, what kind of electric use rates will be associated with them, and then figure out the most effective way to process credit cards. All of these challenges require efficient communications. Think about all that is coming down the pipeline for electric utilities. All these issues can be impacted in a positive way by the robust communications fiber enables between the devices in the field, substations, and district offices.” 

Fiber and Electric, Restored Side by Side

Cullman Electric Cooperative (CEC) in Cullman, Ala., has the distinction of being a part of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) cooperative community. Founded in 1936, CEC has 48,000 members and 3,700 miles of primary electrical lines distributed across 18 substations. It has pulled over 1,400 miles of fiber and services 9,000 broadband customers through its Sprout Fiber Internet subsidiary.

“We took a phased approach to installing fiber,” said Justin Lee, Manager of Engineering and Technical Services, Cullman Electric Cooperative. “The first goal was interconnecting our substations. We didn’t start building the fiber network looking at how many people we could connect to the internet because we knew that the electrical system would be the first beneficiary of fiber. We weren’t going to do fiber if we couldn’t also improve the electrical system.”

The electric co-op’s internal network delivered substantial benefits to CEC, including migrating all the company’s existing WAN connections and consolidating them onto the organization’s new 144-strand fiber ring. CEC could have done fiber as an independent system that had nothing to do with the electrical network and deployed customer broadband sooner, but it would have likely been “very costly,” said Lee.

Instead, CEC took a conservative approach which is expected to save money while improving the grid, with customers getting connectivity as the electric-side network grows. “We had internal savings of six figures or better in a year for the internet connections we had in different places for our business,” said Lee. “We were able to add 24/7 video access to all of our substations. If we hadn’t gone to Sprout for that bandwidth and instead used a third party, the cost would have been quite significant. We’re now getting our feet wet and expanding systems operations.”

Establishing the initial fiber network allowed CEC to look at ways to leverage its substation connectivity and expand out to reach its members as more parts of the electric system are connected. “Now that all of our substations are connected, we’ve started working on adding mainline devices downline.”

Putting fiber connectivity and electric power delivery in parallel also means both systems will likely be repaired at the same time, given that roughly 95% of overhead power and mainline fiber are on the same poles. “We know main trunk lines have to come up first,” stated Lee. “They’re often on the same lines as fiber. It’s been designed that way, so if we need to restore electrical, we can restore broadband just as fast if lines or poles fall.”

Second-Fastest ISP in the Nation

Nearly an hour’s drive north from Denver in good weather, the City of Loveland has built an excellent broadband service for the residents of the region. Loveland’s Pulse utility boasts a Net Promotor Score (NPS) of 68.4 in 2023, among the highest in the nation. PCMag’s December 2023 wrap-up of the best ISPs in the U.S. cited Pulse as the second-fastest ISP in the nation.  

Pulse’s success is all the more amazing since it is a part of the Loveland Water and Power Department, a municipally-owned utility providing Loveland residents with power, water, and wastewater services. Loveland Water and Power started operation as a utility almost a century ago in 1925, with Pulse established in 2018 and starting consumer operations in 2020, a small fraction of that history. 

Loveland City Council and members of city board and commissions attend a network tour. Source: City of Loveland Pulse.

“We have just over 40,000 electrical customers in total,” said Adam Bromley, Electric Utility Manager, City of Loveland. “Loveland is one of four cities that co-owns and operates our generation and transmission provider, Platte River Power Authority. We made the decision to implement fiber throughout our service territories as backhaul for our data operations in the 1990s. It has provided us with a lot of ability to communicate and ensure reliable operations from a utility perspective.”

Prior to fiber, the utility system was using 800 MHz radios to communicate between facilities but found the system problematic and prone to weather interference. Having provided fiber as a better communications medium for the utility, the municipality was willing to approve the utility to move broadband operations for the community, with the existing network providing the base for expansion.

Broadband and electric staff inspecting conduit path into electric
vault. Source: City of Loveland Pulse.

“There’s a lot of synergies that happen between the two sides of the utility,” said Brieana Reed-Harmel, Broadband Manager, Pulse. “We share resources where they make sense, like locators, GIS databases, and those things where there’s a lot of collaboration to see each other’s infrastructure and share information. And of course, there’s the nexus points along the way with smart grid and other utility operations where you have communications devices out in the field, it makes sense to make sure these things overlap.”

Pulse has deployed around 921 miles of fiber, with the initial construction funded through Loveland’s communication’s enterprise fund generated from revenue bonds backed by the city’s electric and communications enterprise. It has received some smaller state grants to build out some underserved areas on the edges of the community and is planning to apply for BEAD money when the state is ready to accept applications. 

“We have about 40,000 passings and we are at a 35% take rate for the areas we can serve,” said Reed-Harmel. “We have parts of the city we don’t have broadband access to, like MDUs, mobile home parks, that type of thing.” She expects that take rate to go up over time as customers come to the end of their existing broadband contracts and switch over to Pulse’s service.  

Pulse fiber NID being installed near electric meter. Source: City of
Loveland Pulse.

Pulse will also be working to expand its network over time as new developments open up, as well as working with unserved and underserved areas outside the city boundaries in local unincorporated areas and neighboring communities.

“I see a lot of parallels to the electrification of America 100 years ago,” said Reed-Harmel. “Loveland started a municipal electric utility because the service provider in the area was not meeting our electrical needs. They were limiting the number of light bulbs you could have in your house. It wasn’t good for our community. In 2015, we were really struggling with having good connectivity for our schools and we had pockets of the city that were being left behind because they had one service provider and poor broadband. We took things into our own hands and started the broadband utility, leveraging the electric work that came before. It’s the same mentality as electrification.”