Public Private Partnership Secures Stimulus Funding for Extensive Fiber Network

Frustration caused by sluggish Internet speeds, limited bandwidth and high costs, along with a ranking by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration placing Wisconsin 45th among all states for high-speed Internet access, prompted the development of a partnership among several Wisconsin communities and the University of Wisconsin-Extension (UW-Extension) to address the connectivity concerns.

The public/private collaboration of the UW-Extension, with its 80-plus partners, including CCI Systems, the private provider selected by UW-Extension officials, is the driving force behind the successful statewide effort.  

“Connectivity in Wisconsin wasn’t keeping up with demand, particularly by public institutions,” says Maria Alvarez Stroud, director of the UW office of Broadband Sustainability. “Given the mission of UW to help build stronger communities, we know that this project is the right course of action for Wisconsin communities.”

UW is one of the largest systems of public higher education in the country, serving more than 182,000 students annually and employing more than 32,000 faculty and staff statewide. An anomaly of sorts compared to most U.S. university systems, UW is composed of 13 four-year universities, 13 freshman-sophomore UW college campuses located throughout the state and the statewide UW-Extension System. UW operates on an annual budget of approximately $4.75 billion, of which $1.4 billion is received from gifts, grants and contracts.

In 2010, a public/private partnership with CCI Systems, a leading telecommunications network design, engineering and construction firm, secured $37.4 million in stimulus funding for UW-Extension through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s (ARRA) $7.2 billion allocation for Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). The money is being used to build a 630-mile fiber-optic network to help improve lagging connectivity.

UW-Extension selected Michigan-based CCI Systems as the design, engineering and installation partner for the new network after an extensive review of related telecommunications consulting firms.

“Public-private partnerships are our expertise,” says Dave Mattia, director of operations for CCI Systems. “We are also quite adept at working within the parameters for the federal funding programs. Our experience and expertise in designing and building broadband, fiber-optic communications networks are great assets to our partners.”

The network will span some 630 miles and connect 182 government buildings, libraries, schools and medical facilities to form Community Area Networks (CAN). Commercial providers will be able to use much of the same network to provide broadband services to homes and businesses. Proponents of the project say it will allow schools and cities to pool resources to ensure public facilities can handle an ever-increasing amount of information.

Collaboration Drives Efficiency

CCI Systems was established in 1955 through the development of a small community access television system (CATV). Over the next several decades, as the communication industry developed, CCI Systems gained experience to become an industry expert in engineering, construction and maintenance of communication systems, as well as the rollout of new technologies and services. With more than 400 employees, CCI Systems works with customers from coast to coast and has completed network communication projects in Guam and Puerto Rico. The company is one of a few firms to offer integrated start-to-finish solutions that eliminate the need for multiple vendors.

“Our approach is extremely disciplined and methodical,” says Cory Heigl, director of business development for CCI Systems. “Collaboration, listening and cooperation are critical to maximize project efficiencies. Other firms may start by choosing a technology. We begin by listening and identifying the desired end result. Our approach streamlines the process and has proven most effective in securing funding, especially grants and stimulus money.”

Upon reaching consensus on the project result and finalizing the specific corridors within the state where the new network would serve, the next step was to complete environmental assessments. This included recognition of endangered species, wetlands, equipment noise and emissions, even native tribal burial sites that are common throughout Wisconsin. From there, the specific routes were mapped out as part of the engineering phase, followed by the installation of conduit and putting the actual fiber in the ground. The CCI Services team selected a combination approach for installing the 1.25-in. HDPE conduit, using both horizontal directional drilling (HDD) and vibratory plow methods. The diverse ground conditions presented an ongoing series of challenges.

“Thanks to the glaciers, Wisconsin has some of the most diverse ground conditions found anywhere in the country,” Heigl says. “Within a half mile we could encounter sand, clay, cobble, layered stone, bedrock and anything in-between.”

Cast, Crews and Equipment

Mattia estimates that approximately 125 miles of the 600-plus mile network will be installed using HDD, with the remaining miles placed using a vibratory plow. The company selected a D24x40 Series II Navigator horizontal directional drill, manufactured by Vermeer. The RTX1250 ride-on tractor with vibratory plow, also by Vermeer, was used for the bulk of the install. Nine tractor/plow rigs and 10 drills have been dispatched to several locations across the state, along with support from several vacuum excavators, air compressors, reel trailers, trucks, backhoes and bulldozers.

CCI Systems and their subcontractors have assembled a cast of more than 100 to tackle the massive project, including segregated crews dedicated to specific communities for connecting schools, libraries and medical facilities to the main line.

“The construction phase is organized by discipline,” Mattia says. “We’ve dispatched crews to specific sites based on the type of installation approach and function. Still, other crews — whose focus is on the long haul — are using different types of equipment on the longer runs. There are two-man crews we call up periodically to complete dig-downs, conduit couplings and vault placement, and last but not least, a full-time restoration and quality control crew. It’s a sophisticated, well-coordinated and highly efficient installation plan.”

The project has been broken down into five segments, with each of CCI Systems’ subcontractors responsible for a different segment. As the plow crews catch up to the bore crews, adjustments are likely to keep installation moving along as efficiently as possible. Mattia emphasizes that flexibility among all parties, especially engineering resources, is important. That said, beyond the obvious challenges presented by rapidly changing ground conditions, there are always those other uncontrollable delays that surface; among the most notable – obtaining all the proper permits.

The conduit is being installed at approximately 36 in. deep in the plowed areas, while depths for boring in the conduit using HDD will vary accordingly by location and situation. The company added staff and equipment to stay on a fairly aggressive schedule with production goals of 500 ft daily for drilling activity and 2,500 ft for the plows. Mattia reports that the average daily progress has far exceeded expectations thus far.

“We are consistently averaging 1,200 ft per day with the D24x40 drills,” Mattia says. “The RTX1250 has been achieving close to 5,000 ft daily plowing in the conduit. The D24x40 drill is a workhorse, extremely versatile and gives us many options. The drill is great for many of the confined areas we often encounter in urban environments.”

“We had to choose machinery that gave us the flexibility for the diversity,” Mattia says. “We are using the RXT1250 with plow attachment to install the conduit in road rights of way and the D24x40 drill to bore under roadways, rivers and wetland areas. Vermeer’s history, experience and knowledge of the terrain by our dealer, Vermeer Wisconsin and their staff, are of great benefit to help us succeed in any of these conditions.”

Integration & Maintenance

When conduit is secured firmly in place, fiber blowing will be the primary method for installing the lines. Crews will also be dispatched to any sites that need additional attention and to tie-in individual buildings. The project will conclude with quality control inspections, integration of the entire network to achieve broadband functionality and restoration of affected areas across the entire 630-mile network.

Mattia expects the installation of the fiber to be wrapped up by June 2013. From there, the role of CCI Systems shifts somewhat from design/build to maintenance and support.

“This network will bring speed and efficiencies to thousands of people and alleviate a lot of frustration,” Heigl says. “It’s one of the most gratifying things about being involved with our company and projects like this. If you’ve ever been kicked off the internet, or twiddled your fingers in anticipation of a file to download, you have a good sense of how much better work and life can be with access to a fast, highly efficient broadband network. It makes all the difference in the world. And the network will dramatically reduce operating costs for the UW System.”

Randy Happel is a features writer at Two Rivers Marketing, Des Moines, Iowa.
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