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MEC touts fiber plan as ‘game changer’

SoVaNow.com / October 25, 2017
Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative is moving forward with a $2.7 million tobacco fund request to build a fiber optic network for speeding up the internet in rural areas within the cooperative’s service region.

The cooperative wants to provide fiber-to-the-home connectivity — which can operate at gigabit speeds, much faster than currently available retail options — initially to some 3,100 homes and businesses in a nine-county Virginia area including Mecklenburg. The ultimate goal is to provide broadband service to all 31,000 customers in the 14-county MEC service area of Virginia and North Carolina.

This pilot project, which is largely contingent upon receiving grant funds from the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, would result in an exciting, new prospect for members who receive their electric service from the cooperative, according to MEC leaders. In meeting its own requirements for ultrahigh-speed communications, MEC recognizes the need of its residential, commercial and industrial members to also have access to high-speed, high-capacity broadband service.

MEC is partnering with Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation to build the proposed network, which would piggyback on MBC’s existing fiber optic backbone running along the U.S. 58 corridor. The first step in constructing the network is laying fiber optic cable to MEC’s 27 substations.

While the cooperative needs high-speed links to manage the smart electric grid of the future, MEC also wants to run fiber to the homes of rural dwellers who lack internet service altogether or struggle with slow speeds.

“Above all we are a cooperative, and it’s inconceivable to build fiber and not make every effort to share that service with our members and our communities,” said David Lipscomb, Vice President of Member and Energy Services with MEC.

Lipscomb said getting into the internet business is a natural step for rural cooperatives, which were formed in the 1930s to extend electrical service to the countryside. A number of rural cooperatives in the U.S. have built fiber-to-the-home networks to directly serve retail customers; other cooperatives have built the infrastructure to sell “dark fiber” capacity and transport services to internet service providers that in turn offer last-mile connectivity to retail customers.

That is not what MEC plans — instead, it is aiming to become an ultra-high speed, internet service provider.

Lipscomb described the planned service as “the new deal” in which cooperatives such as MEC fill a gap created when telecoms decide not to go into rural areas.

Two weeks ago, MEC approached the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors with a request for Mecklenburg to serve as grant agent for the Virginia Tobacco Commission funding request. The tobacco commission has some $10 million set aside in its R&D budget to expand high-speed internet access in Southside and Southwest.

Supervisors agreed to sponsor MEC’s $2.7 million tobacco grant request. If the money is approved, the cooperative can begin work on the project in 2018, said Lipscomb. He estimated it would take three years to complete.

State Sen. Frank Ruff and Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols shared their support for this project with the Tobacco Commission.

“The forward thinking of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative to offer fiber to the home is exactly what we were looking for when the Tobacco Commission decided to assist in providing broadband to the region,” wrote Ruff in a letter of support. “I am delighted that Mecklenburg’s proposal will provide true high-speed broadband service.”

According to MEC CEO John Lee, the pilot project anticipates bringing service to 3,100 homes nearest to their substations, but the ultimate goal is to supply all 31,000 MEC customers with the same service. Instead of bringing in a third-party ISP or leasing dark fiber space, Lee says MEC will create a separate entity that will serve as the ISP. That way, Lee says they can keep the costs as low as possible for future customers.

The idea came about as MEC looked at plans to connect all 27 of its substations through broadband. “Right now, we are leasing lines, but they are not fast enough to fulfill our real time energy needs,” Lipscomb explained, adding that the move to link the 27 substations offered a “unique opportunity” to upgrade internet service to people throughout the region, regardless of whether they are MEC customers.

This fiber “backbone” ring is necessary to meet the increasing need for communicating with electricity distribution equipment including meters, down line devices, and substations on the cooperative’s system; monitoring substation operations and evaluating energy use; as well as improving overall reliability and meeting the future requirements of Smart Grid.

Further benefits for the cooperative, in addition to speed and higher capacity, would be a reduction in internal costs of communication lines currently being leased and an increase in substation and grid security. The fiber ring will ensure the cooperative has the capacity and communications capabilities to meet its needs well into the future.

Optical fiber is a “future-proof” technology and represents the best of the best for communications and broadband offerings, using light — which is exponentially faster than wireless — to deliver data. Unlike wireless services, fiber mitigates frequent hardware change-outs and other associated costs as newer and faster wireless options become available.

“Technology and future needs require connecting our distribution substations via fiber optic cable and the board’s approval of this fiber deployment re-enforces our commitment to build and maintain an electrical system that reliably serves our members; and with this upgrade comes a significant opportunity – the ability to provide our members with the best in high-speed broadband,” stated MEC Board Chairman David Jones. “Our area indeed needs that service and accordingly, the board has approved a pilot project to evaluate the demand and resources needed to deliver a system-wide ‘Fiber-To-The-Home’ undertaking.”

Before moving forward, MEC looked at other U.S. rural cooperatives and conducted a feasibility study. The result, Lipscomb said, was a determination that MEC could offer broadband access at a reasonable cost. “We already possess the skill to run cable, climb poles, and operate bucket trucks and trenchers. Our feasibility study showed this project should be cost effective, and fits within our business model that is designed to cover costs, not line stockholders’ pockets.”

Fiber-To-The-Home is the installation and use of optical fiber from a middle mile or backbone cable directly to individual locations, such as residences, apartment buildings and businesses to provide unprecedented high-speed internet access. The retail project would begin with the new deployment of 47 miles of optical fiber connecting MEC’s office in Gretna to the office in Chase City and along the way, connecting to seven of its substations as well.

That initial deployment would pass MEC members in portions of Pittsylvania, Halifax, Charlotte and Mecklenburg counties. Subsequently, the cooperative would connect Chase City to Ebony and then connect Ebony to the Emporia office and cross portions of Brunswick and Greensville counties. Collectively, these three projects will pass within 1,000 feet of 3,000 homes and businesses.

“We will start with 135 miles of backbone passing approximately 3,100 homes and businesses, and then request $2.7 million from the Tobacco Commission to cover the costs of connecting these homes and businesses in a retail offering,” explained Lee. “We’ll be offering our people the best of the best 50/50 Mbps – 50 megabits per second upload and download.”

Once the pilot project is up and running, MEC vice president of IT Dwayne Long says MEC will have an accurate assessment of the cost for installing fiber optic broadband service. They will then go after additional grants monies such as the Connect America Fund to pay to lay more fiber optic cable to more customers outside the initial ring, eventually reaching all 31,000 MEC customers.

Lee acknowledges that there may be scenarios where it is financially or physically not feasible to run fiber optics to a home. Outside of that, he expects to bring the 50 Mbps service to each and every MEC customer throughout the service region.

“This is a game-changer,” said Lee.

While he applauds Mid-Atlantic Broadband for the broadband solution being designed in conjunction with Microsoft, he says MEC’s fiber optics “is superior.”

The Mid-Atlantic/Microsoft project is intended to fill a gap where there is a need, as quickly as possible. Their white space solution is short term, says Lee.

Long says what MEC is doing is not new or cutting edge. Long, in his previous role at a small cooperative in Georgia oversaw a similar project nearly 10 years ago. Blue Ridge Mountain EMC, was much like MEC in terms of the demographics of the community and the number of customers per mile. Still today, after 10 years, their fiber optic broadband service operates in the black.

Now, he is bringing that expertise to Mecklenburg County.

Long also predicted that out of 900 electric cooperatives around the country, all or nearly all will soon be looking to deploy fiber optic cable. Already in Virginia, a small cooperative in Wise County is also in the process of providing fiber optic broadband to its customers.

MBC laid the groundwork for the service over 10 years ago when it deployed a fiber-optic backbone along Route 58 to help spur economic development in rural southern Virginia.

In 2006 MBC began transmitting data via fiber-optic cable the Route 58 corridor. Since then, MBC expanded its service area into 20 Virginia counties, with links to 60 industrial and technology parks.

MEC wants to expand that fiber optic network even further. Lipscomb said, “we are committed to bringing this critically important services to Southside Virginia’s rural areas and providing those who live here the same access afforded to those in urban areas … they deserve nothing less.”

MEC’s application will be submitted to the Tobacco Commission in mid-November, and if approved, they can begin work on the project in 2018. They’re asking for part of the $10 million the Tobacco Commission has set aside in R&D funds for last-mile providers.

Tim Pfohl with the Tobacco Commission says he has not heard anything from any other local entity looking to install broadband in this area, but if applications are received, he expects they will be asking for funds from that same pot of money

Lipscomb stressed that the money needed to connect MEC’s substations with fiber optic cable would be paid for by MEC. The tobacco money would be used to hook homes on the route to MEC’s fiber optic cable.

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