Rural towns turn trendsetters in deploying fiber-optic networks

Rural towns turn trendsetters in deploying fiber-optic networks


In America`s smallest towns, fiber-optic network deployment is leading to impressive telecommunications-service improvements. In many locations, rural residents are leaping from antiquated multiple party-lines to all-fiber backbones, and from old step-by-step telephone switches to digital telephony networks.

In the United States, the communications infrastructure for the future is rapidly moving away from major metropolitan areas and into remote rural towns and resort communities. There, end users are interacting with advanced voice, video and data services that many urban city dwellers are still awaiting.

During the past few years, Colorado`s local exchange carrier, US West Communications, has been upgrading low-quality telephony circuits to digital switches, and stretching fiber-optic backbones to such remote places as Telluride, located high in the San Juan mountains in the southwestern portion of the state. Fiber has been remotely deployed there because of end users` increased demand for advanced telephony services.

"Demand from customers will be the driver for fiber deployment in rural America," says David Banks, US West spokesperson in Denver. He also expects to see fiber deployment growth "in selected pockets, but not everywhere." Banks indicates that fiber has been deployed in Telluride and Durango, CO, as a result of the influx of professionals moving to these localities in search of a cleaner environment.

These professionals are working in mountain homes situated high on a mesa above the town of Telluride, and are operating home-based businesses as if they were living in the financial district of San Francisco. That is what Peter Lert had in mind when he relocated in 1989. Lert, the owner of several aviation industry operations, is also a freelance aviation writer.

When he first moved to the area located 12 air-miles from the town of Telluride, Lert had no phone service. Out of necessity, he rigged a radio connection into Telluride. Later, as more professionals moved into the area, US West installed a cellular system as an interim telephony solution. In a short time, the wireless system was swamped with new users who demanded more bandwidth, according to Lert.

As a result, in 1995, US West deployed hybrid fiber/copper-wire networks that linked the Telluride central office with nearby larger municipalities such as Montrose and Grand Junction. The carrier also deployed these networks to various concentrations of customers situated close to ski areas and to Lert`s neighborhood.

Now, Lert has high-quality voice and data capabilities that connect his home office to worldwide services. In fact, he uses a 14.4-kilobit-per-second modem to contact his publisher. "As the corporate infrastructure allows more telecommuters, more people will follow," says Lert from his perch near Telluride.

Small-town fiber

Colorado is not the only western state that is pacesetting fiber to small towns. Situated on an eastern Wyoming plain near the Nebraska border, Lusk is a town of 1504 residents. But residents of this forward-moving rural community have access to all the high-speed fiber-optic bandwidth that many city residents in Denver--almost 250 miles down the road--take for granted.

Lusk is the county seat of Niobrara County (population 2499), the least-populated county in the least-populated state in the United States. Its isolation from major metropolitan areas has not stopped the city government from upgrading the local infrastructure with a 17-mile hybrid fiber/coaxial-cable network that links 600 homes, two schools, a hospital, a library, government offices and local businesses.

Utilizing the municipally owned electric utility`s rights-of-way, city officials obtained funding for the project from an obscure source. The Petroleum Violation Escrow Fund was established in 1986 after Federal court rulings forced major oil companies to hand over illegal profits earned in the 1970s. The state of Wyoming`s share of these funds administered by the U.S. Department of Energy is approximately $23 million. Working with electric power provider Wyoming Municipal Power Agency, also based in Lusk, the city solicited and received funds for the fiber-optic infrastructure project. Grant money was also set aside for energy-related conservation projects, such as demand-side management.

Don Whiteaker, Lusk`s mayor, began the planning process of overbuilding the local infrastructure with fiber and coaxial cables in 1987. Now, the town is offering cable-TV and local telephone services. However, Whiteaker has no current plans to offer competitive services.

Working with US West to build a fiber-optic link into Lusk presented a deployment challenge, as the nearest fiber junction is approximately 45 miles away. "Developing a public-private partnership is available to anybody right now," states Whiteaker. Initial plans called for the Wyoming town to build the fiber-optic link to town and then lease the fiber backbone back to US West. The carrier agreed to build the long-haul 24-fiber cable connection. Mayor Whiteaker is hopeful that either the carrier or the local cable-TV company will use the broadband system for advanced service delivery.

Byan Systems Inc., a small business that manufactures microprocessors for automated security gates, moved to Lusk in 1992, before the installation of the fiber-optic network and the digital switch. Company President John Boreczky declares that the fiber-optic network "makes life easier." He works with architects and home builders across the United States and with suppliers in Spain, and accesses 56-kbit/sec circuits for online CAD/CAM applications. Boreczky reflects on the long-term possibilities and the impact that the fiber infrastructure has on the community. "The small- town attitude is good; people have excellent work ethics."

"Telecommunications is as important an element of infrastructure as transportation, utilities and public works," declares Robert H. Picchi, a principal with Hoskins-Davis, a utilities strategy consultancy based in Raleigh, NC. "The U.S. economy is shifting away from an industrial-based society and into the era of the information society. A telecommunications, fiber-optic-based infrastructure is one of the cornerstones of economic development for the future. The widespread accessibility of reasonably priced, high-speed voice, video and data networks will be the economic magnet for communities in the 21st century," says Picchi.

Polling residents in 20 small towns in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota and the Dakotas, the Rural Policy Research Institute found that people in remote spots often use personal computers, fax machines, e-mail and other technical services more readily than does the population at large. The institute, a consortium of universities and agencies, also indicated that 46% of the rural residents surveyed, versus 33% of the general population, use personal computers. Rural residents in Nebraska listed medical services, education, and business as top priorities, according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal.

Rural fiber

"Percentage-wise, rural customers are more technology-oriented out of necessity," says Wayne Davis, director of network planning and administration at Century Telephone Enterprises Inc. in Monroe, LA. Century, a telecommunications and independent telephone company, is installing fiber-optic-based synchronous optical network rings in Colorado, Idaho and northern Arkansas. With 11 access lines per route mile in these states, the telephone company serves some of the least-populated rural areas of the United States.

In fact, its 35 Century telephone subsidiaries serve more than 470,000 access lines in 14 states. But even with relatively few customers, the company had more than 1490 fiber-optic cable miles in service by first quarter 1995. It deployed its first Sonet fiber-optic ring in northern Mississippi in 1987. Since then, the company has installed fiber throughout its key routes, which link rural communities to bigger towns for local access provider and interexchange carrier hand-off of non-local traffic.

Fiber to the curb

Century has installed digital telephony to 98% of its mostly rural areas. It is also considering the use of fiber-to-the-curb technology in small towns, using hybrid fiber/coaxial-cable networks, to bring fiber drops to within 500 feet of homes.

"Wherever there is a demand, we will build it," says John Andrews, public policy and economic development coordinator for PTI Communications in Colorado. The independent telephone company recently acquired 45 rural exchanges from US West Communications for $207 million. It plans to spend approximately $20 million during 1995 to upgrade telephony services in its rural serving areas. Many ranchers and farmers in PTI`s new Colorado territory had to rely on antiquated party-lines until the past few years.

Universal service

In rural areas, independent telephone companies have a tremendous financial advantage over local exchange carriers such as US West: They are eligible for state and federal Universal Service funds. Established in 1986 for the subsidization of the high costs associated with providing rural services, the Universal Service Fund provides independent telephone companies with funding so that rural residents of the United States can have access to the same basic telecommunications services available to urban residents at affordable prices.

Currently under review by the federal government, which is tackling telecommunications reform and deregulation, virtually all local exchange carriers agree that the Universal Service Fund should remain intact. Industry sources agree that the fund is critical to the continued upgrading of rural telecommunications facilities.

Based in Hugo, CO, Eastern Slope Telephone, a rural cooperative covering more than 5500 square miles of the eastern/central portion of the state, has deployed hundreds of route miles of fiber-optic cable linking serving areas and exchanges. "We build it and wait for them to come," remarks Eastern Slope Telephone`s General Manager Chuck Helgerson.

The company has 4000 access lines but only 3600 end users, who are linked to 10 serving area exchanges via an all-fiber backbone. Interoffice fiber routes have been deployed by Eastern Slope Telephone since 1991, primarily out of necessity to accommodate expanding calling areas, as mandated by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.

The telephone company has also linked four public schools in its sparsely populated eastern Colorado serving area with dark fiber. According to Helgerson, the schools are expected to use the fiber-optic network for distance learning via interactive video applications. After the school installations, this rural cooperative telephone company plans to link small local hospitals to what it calls the "High Plains Rural Health Network." This fiber-optic-based network will establish connections with major hospitals in Denver and elsewhere for telemedicine applications. q

Fred A. Joyce is president of Joyce Telecom Group in Colorado Springs, CO.

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