It is not unusual anymore to read that small communities and independent telephone companies are building state-of-the-art fiber networks to serve relatively small, often rural service areas.
While the big telecommunications companies concentrate on urban areas where the number of potential customers is greatest, enterprising local networks are bringing fiber connections directly to customers with services, some say, are superior to that available in most big cities. After all, Verizon is the only major company deploying fiber to the premises (FTTP) to a significant number of customers.
One of the most ambitious of these projects is under way in Indiana where Smithville, the parent company of Smithville Telephone, Smithville Digital and Smithville Telecom, will invest $90 million over the next 60 months to completely rebuild its communication systems bringing fiber-optic cable connections directly to customers.
The rebuild will bring availability of fiber-based broadband to all of the 29,000 customers in 17 counties served by 12 different telephone exchanges in southern Indiana. The new network will allow customers to receive data, voice and video at the speed of light through cutting-edge technology that brings fiber-optic broadband directly into the home.
Construction began in August 2008, said Ron Hahn, Smithville outside plant manager and engineer. “Through September 2009, we expect to complete 13 projects and a 200-mile trunk line. That is a pretty aggressive schedule, but in all we have 54 separate projects. Engineering proceeds as we build the first projects, and the goal is for engineering to be about three projects ahead of construction so that when one segment is complete, we can begin on the next group of projects without interruption in work.”
The current engineering firm is Telplexus, Murfreesboro, Tenn. Most of the new fiber network plant will be underground. Hahn said various methods of construction are being used, depending on surface and soil conditions and existing utilities.
“We do some trenching through small towns, but we want to avoid excavation as much as possible,” he explained. “We use vibratory plowing and horizontal directional drilling (HDD). The planned projects contain a lot of rock, and that is a factor, but 85 to 90 percent of the fiber is going underground with everything in duct except the service drops.”
Open-cut construction once was the standard method of burying outside plant and still is used in areas with few surface improvements and existing buried utilities, but more and more construction these days calls for procedures that limit disturbance to improved areas and crowded underground easements.
Vibratory plows can install cable and small-diameter conduit making only a narrow slit in the ground, causing much less disruption than any type of excavation.
Horizontal directional drills have become widely used on FTTP projects because of their ability to make trenchless installations under streets and highways, driveways and sidewalks and yards and other landscaped areas, not only limiting surface damage but reducing disruption of traffic and other routine activities.
The contractor for the first project is Ervin Cable Construction LLC, Sturgis, Ky. The company specializes in constructing fiber rings and fiber upgrades.
Included in Ervin’s fleet of HDD equipment working on the Smithville project are two horizontal directional drilling units: a Ditch Witch JT922 model with 9,000 lbs of pullback, maximum spindle torque of 1,100 ft-lbs and spindle speeds to 186 rpm and a JT2020 unit develops 20,000 lbs of pullback, 2,200 ft-lbs of spindle torque and maximum spindle speed of 150 rpm.
Both self-contained drill units are mounted on rubber tracks for moving across both paved surfaces and landscaped areas, and their compact size makes them well suited to work on FTTP projects.
In addition, crews are using a FM fluid-mixing system mounted on a trailer with dual 1,000-gal tanks; and two Ditch Witch FX30 vacuum excavators — one that is equipped with a 300-gal tank, the other with an 800-gal tank.
The vacuum excavators can be used both for soft-excavation potholing to uncover and visually identify the locations of existing buried utilities and to clean up excess drilling fluid from work sites.
Installing outside plant underground is nothing new for Smithville; more than 80 percent of its existing copper plant is underground, and the company has its own underground construction equipment, including a JT1220 directional drilling unit and electronic tracking equipment, RT40 trencher, RT75 combination trencher/vibratory plow, 420sx vibratory plow and trailers. None of this equipment is being used on the fiber construction.
“We use it for day-to-day construction and our own crews have done construction to bring power to some greenfield areas,” Hahn explained.
Segments of the copper network will be retired as the new fiber is completed to replace them.
“Fiber will change entirely the way we do business,” Hahn said. “It’s a rollover that will require training to convert employees at every level to be fiber people.”
When the rebuild is complete, none of Smithville’s customers will be connected to copper or hybrid (copper, fiber or coaxial cable) systems, which have significant limitations and cannot achieve the high speeds available only with fiber-based systems. Smithville plans to roll out a completely new suite of services with its rebuild, including extended data and consumer video packages. Customers will be able to access the Internet, telecom or future video services when they become available at download speeds up to the 100 mb per second range.
Smithville chairman and CEO Darby A. McCarty said the fiber network is expected to have profound positive implications for rural economic development, as the high-capacity of a fiber-optic system will enable rural businesses to compete on a global scale.
Jeri Lamerton is public relations manager for Ditch Witch, which is headquartered in Perry, Okla.