FTTXcellence: Opportunity in dark times

In this magazine interview Shane Trotman., senior operations supervisor at Farmers Telephone Cooperative and 2011 winner of the FTTXcellence Award, describes the challenges he faced when his service area in Alabama was devastated by a tornado. Thanks to ingenuity, hard work, and a lot of help from neighboring service crews, Trotman not only restored his network, but improved it…

Shane Trotman isn't unique in that when he was a field supervisor at Farmers Telephone Cooperative (FTC), he was given a mandate to implement a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) infrastructure. But he certainly found himself facing something new when five tornadoes devastated his service area last April. For his work in FTC's initial implementation as well as his handling of disaster recovery, Trotman received the 2011 FTTXcellence Award. Co-sponsored by Corning Inc. and Lightwave, the FTTXcellence Award honors the achievements of an individual who has significantly advanced the use of optical communications technology in North American access networks.

In this interview, Trotman describes FTC's approach to FTTH and how the company found opportunity in the wake of the tornadoes' devastation.

Lightwave: What was FTC's strategy for moving to FTTH?

Trotman: When we first started, our thoughts were to deploy fiber to the longer lines and leave the shorter ones on copper, and we were also upgrading the copper as we went. Sometime in about late 2009 we changed our philosophy and basically decided to leave the copper alone - leave it working, but don't touch it - and do a 100% fiber overbuild.

What drove that decision?

Speed and economics. With the price of copper, for what it cost to upgrade the copper assets in the ground, you could go ahead and build enough fiber for everybody. But we were only going to cut customers over as needed. Which means any quality of service issues, we go ahead and put them on fiber. Or demand - if people want our triple play services.

Which FTTH technology are you using?

We're using active. All of our small switches out in the rural areas are on rings. So if any trunking fiber anywhere in our area is cut, nobody's out. But from the switch out to the customer we're using active, which gives us a direct fiber from the switch location to the customer.

For us it was a nice fit because we have a small enough population that those fiber counts work. And we feel like it's future-proofing our network.

How has the buildout progressed?

In our ILEC area, we've got about 15,000 homes, and we've been able to pass just over half of those already with fiber. What we're looking at is by the end of next year, we should be at roughly 80%. And that's when it gets tough to get to those other 20%. We don't plan to leave them behind, but it's going to get a little tougher.

What has been your role in the buildout?

I was on a cable crew when we first started getting into the fiber business. And I was fortunate in the fact that I was a front line supervisor - I was actually the guy climbing the poles and going out in the bucket truck - but I was in a position in my company where a lot of the decision-makers backed off and let me go out and figure a lot of this out.

Myself and two co-workers actually patented a little workstation to be able to go up in the bucket and terminate drops. We're real rural, and the connectorized solution didn't fit for us. But we didn't want to have to leave 100-ft slack and get it down and in a trailer every time we needed to hook up a drop. And so we developed a little workstation that takes your splicer up in the bucket and ties a drop onto the fiber.

My latest job is more in the decision-making role, deciding the markets, what's economically feasible.

Describe the scene after the tornadoes hit.

It was really the most chaotic thing I've ever lived through. You can imagine 16-hour days for three months straight, hundreds of people out of service. At one point, one of the local guys had a little single engine airplane, and I went up in it just to survey. We had a total of five tornadoes in our area, but two big ones. So we went up just to try to get an image in your head of how to prioritize.

What was your strategy for rebuilding the network?

We had companies from five states, plus contractors, and trying to coordinate all that. What I would try to do is be here at 4 o'clock in the morning, coordinate everything, and once all the trucks got out, then get my boots on and go out with the guys and try to help them.

One of the early themes that we figured out pretty quickly was that there was a lot of copper that we just abandoned. We decided if we've got fiber and copper totally destroyed, what do we have to get back up for quality of service and what can we ignore and just build the fiber?

How did you assemble the necessary resources?

It was mostly volunteer. In fact, honestly we had more people offer to help than we could coordinate. The response was awesome, once people heard the shape we were in. The first company to respond was Ben Lomand [Communications]. They're not too far away up in Tennessee, and before we even told them we needed someone, they had crews rolling in.

We had lots of companies [send help], so we would rotate.

What lessons have you learned from the tornado experience?

One would be, don't underestimate the importance of having someone monitor your main fiber backbone. We had a few situations where if we would have had a crew a little earlier to a few locations, we could have gotten multiple offices and hundreds of customers up.

And also, it might seem obvious, but make sure you have plenty of crews for generators and fuel and that kind of thing. We had instances where we had areas back up and going, and then all of a sudden we've got 400 or 500 people out of service again because we didn't get fuel to the generator quick enough. You have to think that power is going to be out for several weeks.

Having someone back up, look at the big picture, coordinate all your crews, and aggressively look at how we can improve our network while we're fixing it - early on, that became obvious to us. If we just flew in and replaced everything that was torn up, we would be missing a golden opportunity to convert these people to fiber in an area that we had already planned to.

Are you still rebuilding?

The only thing that we have left would be an area where if there was a small subdivision or dead-end road where every house was totally destroyed, then we didn't build it back until we actually saw houses going up. No one's out of service, and those are the last few.

Clark Kinlin, president and CEO of Corning Cable Systems, addresses the audience after announcing Shane Trotman as the winner of the 2011 FTTXcellence Award. Looking on are (from left) Lee Davenport, senior director, program development at One Economy Corp., Trotman, and Lightwave Editorial Director and Associate Publisher Stephen Hardy.

Shane Trotman is senior operations supervisor at Farmers Telephone Cooperative, which operates as an ILEC and CLEC throughout most of DeKalb and Jackson counties in northeastern Alabama.

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