Fiber network rides on power lines

Fiber network rides on power lines

BEN HARRISON

By using electrical utility high-voltage lines to connect locations along a 420-mile route, a New England fiber-optic network is expected to carry voice, data and video traffic to virtually every major telecommunications switching site in the region.

The project has been in the planning stages for five years, with emphasis on cable design and the acquisition of rights-of-way. The fiber network, known as the New England Optical Network, or NEON, is being built by Fivecom Inc., Waltham, MA. According to Victor Colantonio, president, "We are installing NEON`s 36-mile link between Hartford, CT, and Springfield, MA. This moves us toward our first-phase goal of a 420-mile network backbone linking most cities in three New England states by the end of 1997." He adds, "We expect to build continuously from this backbone to serve the entire New England region, and possibly eastern Canada."

The first phase of NEON is being built in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, which are served by the operating companies of Hartford-based Northeast Utilities Co. Fivecom has long-term agreements to install fiber-optic cabling throughout the utilities` service area. Seeking to negotiate similar agreements with other New England utility companies to expand its reach, the company has already secured a letter of intent from Central Maine Power Co., Maine`s largest electric utility company. In turn, Central Maine plans to become a Fivecom investor.

Construction costs for the first phase of NEON could exceed $30 million, including the installation of specially manufactured 96-fiber cable.

Fivecom is offering leases of fiber-optic capacity to major carriers. This leasing is expected to be less costly than new construction by the carriers themselves. "Piggybacking fiber on electrical utility property is a win-win move," Colantonio says. "It adds value to an existing asset for the utilities and offers carriers a fast and economical option for adding extremely reliable capacity to their systems."

Gerald C. Poulin, chairman of the board of Mainecom Services and a vice president of Central Maine Power Co., says, "The relationships we are building by this investment could lead to new utility partners, joint ventures and strategic alliances that could promote Fivecom`s expansion."

Jerry R. Hobbs, industry analyst at Kessler Marketing Intelligence Corp. in Newport, RI, says, "What Fivecom is doing in New England is significant for the Northeast. However, other companies, such as Southern Co. in the southeast United States are doing the same thing on a grander scale. Electrical utilities are also using fiber-optic technology to meet their internal needs of peak-load demand."

Fiber is used to send signals among utilization monitoring sites, power control centers and generating stations; these signals let the utilities respond quickly to increased demand for power.

Ronald O. Brown, an information technology and enterprise network management consultant in Melrose, MA, says, "The NEON network will ultimately bring competitive fiber-optic service to the small cities and towns of rural New England." He adds, "But the real question is when NEON will provide retail services to overcharged business and residential users in competition with New England Telephone. This is especially true in Maine, where intrastate toll rates are similar to toll charges between Maine and Europe."

Optical ground wire

To accomplish the NEON build, Fivecom has signed contracts for optical ground wire with Focas of Alpharetta, GA, and with Atlanta-based Lucent Technologies, Atlanta Works.

The Focas pact is for the design and manufacture of a high-fiber count static ground cable for NEON applications throughout New England. According to Colantonio of Fivecom, "With this significant manufacturing commitment from Focas, we are able to use high-count fiber cable, and, consequently, the cost of our program will be less."

The dollar value of the cable deal has not been disclosed; however, industry sources indicate the initial purchase price topped $13 million. Some utility company executives involved in the deal felt that Fivecom`s selection will facilitate activation of the electrical distribution and transmission routes used by NEON for its advanced optical system.

Focas` new 80,000-square-foot cabling plant in Atlanta is manufacturing the cable for Fivecom`s applications. The cable possesses an outward appearance and performance characteristics that are identical to that of conventional static ground wire that has been used in the utility industry for 15 years. The new cable design, however, contains a series of small internal grooves that serve as channels for tubes containing the fiber-optic filaments

According to Jack Bottoms, Focas president, "The initial order includes hundreds of miles of cable during the early phase of the NEON program. If expectations are met, the next few years could result in a production run of nearly 2000 miles."

In a separate Fivecom agreement, Lucent Technologies is supplying standard singlemode and Truewave fiber for the NEON build. Truewave is a patented, nonzero dispersion-shifted fiber invented by Lucent Technologies` Bell Laboratories (see Lightwave, December 1994, page 1).

Fivecom specifically selected this fiber for fabrication in the Focas optical ground wire cable. The first order calls for approximately 24,000 miles, or 38,000 kilometers, of fiber strand--16,000 miles, or 25,600 km, is conventional Lucent Technologies fiber, and 6400 miles, or 10,240 km, is Truewave fiber.

Tip of iceberg

Fivecom sees this initial order as the tip of the iceberg. Over the next few years, the company estimates it will install more than 30,000 miles, or 48,000 km, of Truewave fiber out of a total of 120,000 miles, or 192,000 km, of fiber strand.

Arthur Rivers, vice president of operations at Fivecom, says, "Truewave fiber handles chromatic dispersion, which gives us longer distances at higher bit rates. Four-wave mixing is also handled so that wavelength-division multiplexing, or WDM, can be used over our longest network sections, without performance problems."

Another Fivecom vice president, Michael Musen, says, "[This] fiber is capable of transmitting 80 gigabits per second of digital signal. That is approximately 16 times more capacity than today`s convention." He notes that Truewave fiber is designed for systems operating in the 1550-nanometer window. The technical specifications give a nonzero dispersion feature in WDM applications, and the fiber also has excellent polarization mode dispersion performance.

According to Scott Beattie, a Lucent Technologies account executive in Boston who has been working with Fivecom to deliver Truewave fiber, "The build is moving right along." He notes that his company has provided two major shipments for the build. "One of them included 76,000 feet of standard tracking cable and 26,000 feet of standard power guide. The other shipment included 42,000 feet of tracking resistant cable and 26,000 feet of standard power guide." q

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