A fiber runs through it

Co-ops building a fiber network

One hundred years ago the telephone and the light bulb were state-of-the-art. They were also virtually non-existent in rural America. Seventy-five years ago cooperatives finally provided a solution to that problem.

Today, state-of-the-art means having a high-speed broadband connection. Smart is everywhere. Smart phones, smart cars, smart tractors, smart factories, smart office buildings, smart homes, smart appliances and of course the smart grid. But all of this smart stuff and the new interconnected world called the “internet of things” require a communication backbone.

Unfortunately, the same problem that existed decades ago for rural electric and telephone cooperatives remains today. It’s called consumer density. In rural Illinois there is only an average of four homes per mile. In town there’s ten times that number of homes per mile, sometimes more. Low consumer density makes it really tough to make a business case for broadband service in rural areas.

This substation intelligent electronic device has fiber optic communications—a key ingredient for the smart grid.
This substation intelligent electronic device has fiber optic communications—a key ingredient for the smart grid.

Despite the challenges, rural electric and telephone cooperatives are forging ahead and building a broadband communications backbone. They are maximizing the use of their current copper networks, expanding wireless broadband services and even building out fiber optic networks. Whenever possible, both telephone and electric cooperatives are working together — an example of the cooperative principle of cooperation among cooperatives.

Egyptian Telephone Cooperative’s CEO Kevin Jacobsen has been working for several years with the area’s electric cooperatives trying to find a cooperative solution. “Partnering makes a lot of sense,” says Jacobsen. ”We provide 100 percent broadband coverage in our seven exchanges in four southern Illinois counties. We want to partner to gain operational efficiencies – not overbuild each other.”

As an example of partnering, many cooperatives have shared services, as well as employees. Jacobsen, for example, also is the CEO for Flat Rock Telephone Cooperative.

But even with partnering between cooperatives and others, there is a rural reality beyond low customer density. For the Steeleville-based co-op, there are a lot more trees and rolling terrain in southern Illinois that make the wireless broadband system envisioned by the co-ops very tough to provide economically to all co-op members. Wireless broadband service is only available outside Egyptian Telephone’s exchanges.

In the meantime Egyptian Telephone Cooperative is helping electric cooperatives, like Southern Illinois Electric Cooperative, with its website, email and other internet needs.

Because of low customer density, long distances to cover, and the wooded and rolling rural terrain, it takes a hybrid communication technology approach. Egyptian Telephone has provided satellite, wireless, DSL over copper, and is currently moving to a fiber optic system.

The telephone co-op has slowly but surely enhanced the broadband business in a way that maintains economic viability. Despite a lot of talk about support for rural broadband, Jacobsen says there is downward pressure on all of the support systems.

“We need predictable support,” says Jacobsen. “We would have fiber to the home now if we knew the support was going to be there for it. We can’t do that right now. We can only do it slowly because we can’t count on any support.”

Today, the telephone cooperative has planted a lot of fiber optic cable, just like many of the state’s telephone co-ops. But, that “last” mile all the way to homes is very expensive.

“We are within a mile of a lot of our customers with fiber,” says Matt Bollinger, Network Operations Manager for Egyptian Telephone. “But we still continue to feed them over our DSL through copper. It is kind of a two-step approach. One is to get the main fiber closer, and the next step is to take it on to their homes.”

 Prairie Power, Inc. Substation Foreman and Primary Fiber Splicer Ryan Ruppel enjoys his new job, but says it requires precision and patience. The fiber is hair thin, incredibly strong and very brittle if you bend it.

Prairie Power, Inc. Substation Foreman and Primary Fiber Splicer Ryan Ruppel enjoys his new job, but says it requires precision and patience. The fiber is hair thin, incredibly strong and very brittle if you bend it.

Jacobsen says although fiber costs have come down, it still costs a minimum of $10,000 a mile for fiber, and then $30,000 to set a cabinet to feed customers. Bollinger adds there are signal limitations from the cabinet. For plain old telephone service over copper they could have loop links between cabinets and homes of 50,000 feet. “Now with fiber the cabinet needs to be within 9,000 feet or less,” says Bollinger.

He says at 9,000 feet the signal strength at the home will provide 15 megabits per second (Mbps), and the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) just recently raised the definition of broadband from 3 Mbps to 25 Mbps. Adding to the cost of fiber to the home is the actual fiber equipment at each home, which runs $400 compared to just $25 for simple copper line telephone service.

While the cost per customer is high, especially in low customer density rural areas, the demand for increasing broadband speeds and access is also very high and growing.

Karen Jackson-Furman, Director of Finance for Egyptian Telephone says although there are businesses that need more bandwidth and more people are working from home, the real demand driver is video streaming. “As we push that fiber optic out deeper into the network we can offer higher bandwidth speeds to those customers, and that is our goal.”

Bollinger says that demand for bandwidth wasn’t very high at first. “Before you got on the web in the evening and checked your email and maybe visited a few websites. Dial up was fine. Now there is never a down time. In your home you might have five smart phones, five iPads, and four Roku boxes streaming video. That’s not even counting the desktop computers and laptops.”

For electric cooperatives it is not video and Netflix, but that same need for bandwidth speed has evolved with the increased data demands of the smart grid. It started with smart meters and a once-a-month meter reading. Today, 95 percent of Illinois electric cooperative members have a smart meter. The communication link is actually the powerline conductor providing powerline carrier communications (PLC) from the meter back to the substation. It’s from the substation to the office where increasing bandwidth is needed.

While automated meter reading systems have been the starting point for the smart grid, the next step is real time data from the meter instead of just a once a month meter reading. It will also include two-way communications that will allow dynamic real time pricing of electricity, demand management programs and new ways for the consumer to lower demand, monitor and control electric bills, incorporate distributed renewable generation, identify outages and restore power automatically, and essentially connect the smart home to the smart grid.

One option several co-ops have already added is prepaid billing. Essentially this uses the automated meter reading system infrastructure to allow the co-op member to control the amount and timing of their bill payment. No deposit is required from the member and no truck rolls are needed to disconnect or connect an account. Southern Illinois Electric had a similar system before, but it required credit card like swipe cards and a visit to the office to “recharge” the card. It worked but it was inconvenient. Now it can all be handled via text, email and the Internet.

Joseph Smith, Chief Technology Officer for Prairie Power, Inc., demonstrates his new smart phone app that can control the temperature of his home via the Internet. Soon smart home apps like this will cooperate with the smart grid to help balance power supply and demand.
Joseph Smith, Chief Technology Officer for Prairie Power, Inc., demonstrates his new smart phone app that can control the temperature of his home via the Internet. Soon smart home apps like this will cooperate with the smart grid to help balance power supply and demand.

Another big data communication user is substation supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA). In many cases it requires a hybrid communications system to provide the data link from the substation SCADA system back to the co-op headquarters. It could be cellular, microwave, phone lines, or 900 mhz radio. Chris Bennett, Executive Vice President/General Manager for Southern Illinois Electric Cooperative, Dongola, says, “We’re using wireless and some cellular where we can get a signal. Our generation and transmission cooperative, Southern Illinois Power Cooperative, is also using a mix of communications links, but as they build or rebuild transmission lines they are adding fiber optic cable to the neutral. The extra cost is negligible to add the fiber optic cable.”

Bennett says the AMR and SCADA systems have become critical tools. “When the AMR or SCADA system is down, it is like a crisis now until we get it back up. It is like if you’ve misplaced your smart phone, or your computer isn’t working, or you can’t get your email — all of a sudden it feels like you can’t get your work done.”

Josh Shallenberger, President/CEO of Shelby Electric Cooperative, Shelbyville, says they are using a 900 Mhz radio system for their substation SCADA connection and to forward AMR data back to the office. The co-op is also using its wireless data network to provide broadband service to members. Three other Illinois electric cooperatives are also providing broadband wireless service to members, and other consumers, over their utility-based wireless data network.

“There truly are applications for wireless, especially in rural areas,” says Shallenberger. “It’s been robust and reliable for our data backhaul. There are pros and cons to each choice, and it is going to take a hybrid communication system right now.

For Shelby Electric’s generation and transmission cooperative (G&T), Prairie Power, Inc., the choices came down to microwave or fiber. Microwave would have worked for less cost if SCADA communication was all they wanted to do. Fiber offered a “future proof” solution for both smart grid applications and economic development in the areas the G&T cooperative served.

To solve the cost difference of a fiber backbone versus microwave, Prairie Power, Inc. (PPI) developed a fiber consortium with Adams Telephone Cooperative, McDonough Telephone Cooperative, Mid Century Telephone Cooperative and Cass Communications to share the expense of the cooperatively-built fiber network to all of the distribution cooperative headquarters, and eventually all of the substations served by PPI.

Jay Bartlett, as PPI’s CEO, helped spearhead this cooperative-built fiber network for PPI. Bartlett saw firsthand what a fiber network could do, for both a utility and the economic development of a community, when he worked for Springfield, Illinois’ City, Water, Light and Power, a municipal system that installed a fiber network. He says the project received no government support or stimulus money, and was only possible because of the cooperation among the telephone and electric cooperatives.

Bartlett says, “We’re investing for the long term and to improve rural life. This is one way the cooperative is going to become even more of a partner in the quality of life for our members in the future. There is no where to go but up in terms of growth.”

Bartlett, who is starting a new job as CEO of Wabash Valley Power Association, an Indiana based G&T, is leaving the project in good hands and well on its way to a successful completion.

“We are at about the halfway point now,” says Joseph Smith, PPI’s Chief Technology Officer. “The project is scheduled to go until 2017. We won’t be at all locations by then. Some of the points we will pick up over time through line rebuilds. There is going to be some microwave until we get fiber to the places we need to be. Every time we rebuild a transmission line we include fiber optics in the transmission. It will be a long-term project.”

Microwave wireless communication will also provide a redundant backup path until the fiber network has an alternate route.

Electrical transmission redundancy is something cooperatives have been working on for their substation networks for many years. Now, communications redundancy is required for a truly smart grid SCADA system that can help pinpoint and reduce outages.

A demonstration substation is already up and running that takes advantage of the fiber network and smart grid devices that can automate power restoration and will facilitate new demand response systems.

Jim Thompson, President of the Board of Directors for PPI, and General Manager for Adams Electric Cooperative in Camp Point, says new technology and a communication link will reduce outage times, improve grid efficiency and lower the cost of power with new demand control options.

Thompson says, “We are employing new smart grid devices in our substations called IEDs, or intelligent electronic devices. They allow us to reroute power and re-establish power in a very short amount of time. It also helps us locate, sometimes right to the pole, where a problem has occurred on the network so we can repair it much more rapidly. This will also facilitate, faster, and less bothersome, demand response and new demand response systems that many people have never conceived of in the past. This will be a great tool for lowering costs in the future.”

Smith says, “IEDs, these new smart devices at our substation, don’t just tell us when things are on or off anymore. They give us extraordinary amounts of detail, all facets of the power that is flowing. Now we can see more information about voltage, current, and all aspects of power quality more than we could in the past. And more data will lead to better decisions.”

The private fiber communication network also improves cyber security. Smith says, “It is a private network, is not connected to the Internet, and that helps improve security. By centralizing some of our communications, we are also able to provide additional security services to our cooperatives.”

The fiber network is not only future proof, according to Bartlett, more importantly it is opening up the opportunity for unexpected innovative ideas.

“Our member cooperatives are now coming up with great ideas for this network we are building,” says Bartlett. “For example, Eric Hobbie, a new manager at Menard Electric Cooperative in Petersburg, said together we could do a better job of disaster recovery with offsite backups of our cooperatives’ computer systems. They wouldn’t just have offsite data backup, but redundant servers and could immediately resume service in a real disaster.”

Bartlett says, even though this rural smart grid broadband project didn’t get any government grants or loan support, he is glad that government agencies are paying attention to the need for rural broadband.

“We are self-help organizations and we’d love to partner or get assistance because I truly believe that the lack of rural broadband is truly a form of discrimination that we need to address. The Internet is now the library, school, office, store, medical facility, bank and more. Not having equal access to information makes for an uneven playing field for rural communities.”