The fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) market is proving to be an economic boon to the compact rig segment of the horizontal directional drilling industry, growing by leaps and bounds in recent years. As more customers crave additional bandwidth and faster Internet speed, network providers, eager to meet that demand using the least evasive means possible, are turning to HDD to bring it to them.

According to the FTTH Council, upgrading North America’s last mile networks with end-to-end fiber is flourishing, with fiber-to-the-home arriving at more than 1.6 million households as of September 2008 and bringing the total number of subscribers to 3.76 million. These figures are from a FTTH Council study that was released in September 2008.

The FTTH Council study also shows fiber-to-the-home networks now passing 13.8 million North American homes, up from 9.55 million in 2007, and that the number of homes receiving video services over FTTH more than doubled over the past year, from slightly more than 1 million in September 2007 to nearly 2.2 million a year later.

“This continued growth in the number of connections and in the take rate is evidence of what consumers think about fiber-to-the-home — it is fast becoming the technology of choice for receiving high-bandwidth Internet and superior video services,” said FTTH Council president Joe Savage. “In addition, we are continuing to see enormously high customer satisfaction rates for FTTH services when compared to other types of broadband and video providers.”   

The study also found that average data download speeds for FTTH subscribers continued to rise — to 7 megabits per second (Mbps) from 5.2 Mbps a year ago — as providers increased available bandwidth in their service offerings.  This compares to a median real-time Internet download speed of 2.3 Mbps among all Internet users, as determined by the Communications Workers of America in its recent Speed Matters survey of more than 230,000 people.

So what does HDD have to do with all of this — a great deal with as more and more system providers are turning to this trenchless application as the preferred method of burying the new fiber conduit, as well as replacing aerial copper lines.

HDD with its compact drill rigs are the perfect fit for network providers that are looking to install the smaller diameter conduit underground, as these lighter, narrower rigs are able to leave a soft footprint on the jobsite and are able to maneuver in the tighter corridors of residential neighborhoods. These rigs have the capabilities to complete bores less than 100 ft up to 1,000 to 1,300 ft, leaving minimal aboveground disruption — to the ground surface and property owners’ daily routines.

Telecom system operators as large as Verizon — which is in the process of replacing its entire copper distribution network with a fiber one — to the smaller local ones have two options for installation: either suspend the fiber cable from existing or new utility poles (better known as the aerial method) or bury it underground, which provides a more pleasing aesthetic landscape and protects the cable from Mother Nature’s unpredictable and destructive wrath.

While the aerial route is much quicker and less costly to a company’s bottom line, more network providers say they are choosing to bury the fiber cables underground as a way to protect their investment from damage from wind, ice storms, lightening and even accidental damage. HDD is the method that the network providers are turning to and are preferring to do the work themselves rather than farm it out to contractors.
“When we discuss case studies and lessons learned in our membership meetings, one of the key topics of interest is how to ensure that FTTH deployments cause minimal disruptions to automobile and pedestrian traffic and the least amount of damage to residential and community property. New technologies in horizontal directional drilling offer solutions that did not exist a number of years ago. And for many FTTH deployers, that means new ways of establishing and preserving good relationships with residents and community officials in the deployment area — something that is critical to a successful project and a successful FTTH business,” says Savage.

In talking with fiber network providers, they say that with HDD, they don’t have to worry about damaging streets or property during installation and traffic disruption is kept to a minimum.

“It’s much more expensive to install fiber with HDD than it is aerial,” admits Mike Gore, director of engineering-outside plant with Pioneer Telephone. “But there are paybacks in some areas, such as not contending with tornados and ice storms. Any time you have ice hanging on your lines that are electric and they go down, you go down with them.”

Pioneer Telephone, Kingfisher, Okla., is one such telecom that has embraced HDD as a way to install its product lines and is a growing list of telecoms opting to have its own fleet of compact rigs and specially trained crews. Founded in 1953, Pioneer Telephone is the fourth largest telephone cooperative in the United States with more than 140,000 customers throughout central Oklahoma. The telecom provides a myriad of communication services such as local telephone service, digital TV, cellular, high-speed Internet and long distance.

Gore notes that the company has seen a recent push in its fiber installation in residential areas than in past years as customers demand more bandwidth. Currently, Pioneer Telephone has 499 FTTH customers and Gore expects that figure to continue growing exponentially over the next few years.

“Fiber installations are going to continue to rise,” he says. “We have made great strides in getting more bandwidth from copper, but it is more cost-efficient to use fiber.,” he says.

While the company has been using HDD to install its product lines over the last six to eight years, it’s just been the past two in which HDD has been used to install the fiber-to-the-home lines. Gore says it’s been about 50-50 split between aerial vs. HDD for the fiber installation. Pioneer Telephone also does its own directional drilling work and has two compact drills (Ditch Witch and Vermeer models) that allow crews to bore lengths up to 1,000 ft in some cases; but in most cases, the crews are making much shorter shots of 300 ft or less.

To date, Pioneer Telephone has put more than 10,000 miles of fiber lines in the ground, including 7.5 million ft of buried fiber of which a significant portion was installed using HDD.

“Anywhere we could achieve right of way access, we chose to do the directional boring,” Gore says. “In the past, in order to place underground facilities, the only equipment we had was a trencher, which caused constant return maintenance. Today that is not the case.”

3 Rivers Telephone Cooperative was founded in 1953 and serves 29 exchanges in Montana, providing direct broadcast satellite, interactive educational television/video conferencing, long distance services, DSL/Internet and WildBlue (high-speed Internet via satellite). The cooperative started building its FTTH communities in Fairfield, Mont., its company headquarters.

Mike Henning, director of plant and facilities with 3 Rivers, says the company made the move to burying its fiber lines as a cost-effective measure for the rural areas and towns it serves, rather than buying and erecting new utility poles. As the demand for fiber increased, 3 Rivers turned to HDD to install it. Over time, the telecom decided to keep the work in-house in lieu of contracting it out.

“As demand increased for this type of work, we felt it was in our best interest to invest in our own equipment,” Henning explains. “Although we still may contract some bigger jobs, we will use our own HDD equipment for road crossings, ditches, waterways and other areas requiring minimal surface disturbance.”
He says typical bores range in length of 40 to 400 ft and the network provider utilizes a two-person crew that is specifically trained for the compact rig it operates.

Both 3 Rivers and Pioneer Telephone didn’t take the HDD plunge for its FTTH work without first consulting other FTTH communities about how it worked out for them. And with 3 Rivers and Pioneer Telephone’s success, fledgling FTTH communities are turning to their experience for guidance. “I contacted another community in the area about how they set up their program,” Henning says, noting that equipment maintenance tips were helpful. “With the demand in regards to broadband deployment, HDD will continue to be a necessary means of getting cable to the customer to provide this service with minimal environmental impact.”

Gore says he gets a lot of questions at various trade shows from other communities about using HDD. “They want to know how well it works and what the positives and negatives are,” he says. “We do see more and more [FTTH] communities using HDD. If the price of the machines comes down, you’ll probably see more of them. It is a large investment.”

Sharon M. Bueno is managing editor of Trenchless Technology.

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