Utilities fuel fiber with multimedia

Aug 1st, 1996

Utilities fuel fiber with multimedia

Ben harrison

Public utilities are becoming a major force in fiber-optic telecommunications by forging partnerships with competitive access providers, telephone companies and cable-TV companies. Consequently, utilities are lighting up their dark or inactive fiber lines for their partners` networks.

Utilities collectively own one of the largest fiber communications systems in the United States. Much of the backbone infrastructure of these systems consists of fiber-optic cable carrying voice, video and data (see Light wave, December 1995, page 1). For example, Carolina Power & Light in Raleigh, NC, is leasing its excess fiber capacity to competitive access providers and cable-TV companies. Also, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in San Francisco has partnered with TCI Cable and Microsoft in a trial cable-TV project involving 2000 residential customers.

Another utility, Wisconsin Energy, Milwaukee, WI, has teamed with Ameritech, the regional Bell holding company in Chicago, to provide an integrated system that communicates to devices in the home over power-line carriers. This system performs both power-quality monitoring and power-outage detection.

Electric-utility executives in the United States expect that retail selling of electricity will eventually become commonplace. If so, energy service companies may deliver purchased power to homes and businesses. For now, utilities are actively investigating all possible methods to connect with their customers.

Based on early trials, it may cost $700 to $2500 to install high-speed, two-way broadband communication links to each home. By comparison, in a trial project under way by Central and South West Corp. in Dallas, the company is installing a hybrid fiber/coaxial-cable network to 2500 new and existing homes in Laredo, TX, for $700 to $800 per home. Central and South West is providing energy management services with direct access to homes and is considering adding video and telephony services, as permitted by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

According to Stephen Montgomery, vice president and chief operating officer of Electronicast Corp. in San Mateo, CA, "Public utilities, specifically electric and gas utilities, own and operate substantial fiber-optic networks. These networks serve internal communication and control needs, and a substantial share of their fiber capacity is leased to communications carriers.

"U.S. railroads--publicly owned but regulated--also have extensive fiber-optic systems," Montgomery explains. "For example, Sprint Corp. was a spin-off of the Southern Pacific Railroad Communication System. These utilities, as well as water and steam utilities, all have rights-of-way assets for cable networks. These rights-of-way are relatively unimpeded and accessible compared to available alternatives."

Montgomery recommends fiber-optic cable as the preferred medium for right- of-way communication application installations because optical fiber is immune to the electrical interference found near a utility`s high-voltage power lines.

In addition to specific electrical-utility company developments, North American consumption of fiber-optic cable by utilities in 1994 was $54.4 million, according to data from Electronicast. This consumption was led by another standard, mostly fiber-optic ground wire, with a 69% share, or $38 million. However, by 2004, loosely buffered cable will have the largest share--92%, or $194 million (see Table 1).

Most of the installation is expected to be buried directly, while duct cable is used mainly by gas utilities. North American electrical utilities are shifting away from fiber-optic ground wire to direct-buried cable as they become major suppliers of fiber capacity for a wide range of communications service providers. Direct-buried cable has greater expansion flexibility, according to Electronicast.

Kessler Market Intelligence Corp. (KMI), a fiber-optics market-research company in Newport, RI, says 64,000 sheath-km of fiber-optic cable have been installed by U.S. electric utilities. Jerry R. Hobbs, KMI analyst, says the cable composition by sheath-km is not likely to change in the future, but fiber counts are increasing (see figure).

Industries in transition

Another view of the electric utility industry in telecommunications comes from Probe Research Inc. in Cedar Knolls, NJ. According to Grant Draper, Probe`s marketing services director, the company`s report "Utilities: Telecommunications Strategies," released in March 1995, describes the role of electric utilities in telecommunications (see Table 2).

Edison Electric Institute, which is cited in the report, says at least 300 arrangements existed between electric utilities and telecommunications carriers to lease a portion of a utility`s reserve fiber capacity. The Federal Communications Commission has estimated that electric utilities have 105,000 miles of fiber capacity under lease to competitive access providers and interexchange carriers.

Probe Research says some utilities have opted for more direct participation in the telecommunications industry. In some cases, a utility-owned competitive access provider unit shares a fiber network with its parent`s utility operation. Other utilities have opted to acquire or invest in existing competitive access providers, interexchange carriers, or even independent local exchange carriers.

Munich conference

The United Kingdom is also experiencing significant fiber-optic utility-network development. At the "Advanced Communications and Competition in Europe Conference," held late April in Munich and sponsored by KMI, network managers reported on their activities.

Alistair Henderson, network strategy manager for Energis, a U.K. public utility that is larger than Con Edison in New York City, discussed his company`s experience in building a high-capacity Synchronous Digital Hierarchy (SDH) network. A wholly owned member of the National Grid Group plc, Energis is a provider of advanced telecommunications and information services. Henderson explains how deregulation of the telecommunications industry in the early 1990s created opportunities for new entrants.

Numerous initiatives were launched, with cable-TV companies carrying local telephony services, complemented by various schemes for national networks. Carriers based on railway lines, pipelines, canals, electricity pylons and other solutions were proposed to compete with the established operators British Telecom and Mercury Communications.

In describing the development of the Energis network, Henderson recalled the excitement of building a national network in record time. The electricity transmission infrastructure of the United Kingdom offered a fast, secure way of building a fiber-core network. Energis has deployed more than 4100 km of fiber--most of it wrapped around the earth wire--with some optical ground-wire cable embedded within the earth wire, and some buried routes. The fiber-wrapping technique, coupled with the deployment of factory-prefabricated transmission repeater sites in containers, enabled a fast build time.

Energis is currently the largest 100% SDH operational national network in the United Kingdom. An early major contract from the BBC involved taking SDH into the broadcast studios and to transmitter sites to provide a highly reliable nationwide network for distribution and contribution of BBC radio and television programmers.

Northern Telecom was contracted to supply a managed network consisting of 2.5-Gbit/sec STM-16 line systems, interconnected at major nodes by 4 ¥ 4 crossconnects from DSC Communications Corp. The network has now been operational for 18 months.o

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