2021 FTTXcellence Award winner Barbara Sessions guides Silver Star Communications through network expansion

Dec. 20, 2022
Wyoming-based Silver Star Communications recently received a series of USDA RUS grants.The programs are reminiscent of the service provider’s deployments that earned Silver Star Communications President Barbara Sessions the 2021 FTTXcellence Award.

Wyoming-based Silver Star Communications recently received a series of USDA Rural Utility Service (RUS) grants to help extend its broadband infrastructure in underserved areas. One, worth $6.0 million that Silver Star will match with $2.4 million, will fund fiber deployment in areas in Game Creek, Fall Creek in Teton County, and Forest Dell in Lincoln County in its home state; the others, which total $2.1 million, cover work in Madison County, ID. The programs are reminiscent of the service provider’s deployments under funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act – deployments that earned Silver Star Communications President Barbara Sessions the 2021 FTTXcellence Award, presented annually by Corning Inc. and Lightwave to recognize achievement in optical access networks.

Silver Star Communications is celebrating the 110th anniversary of its founding as Salt River Telephone Co.; the Hoopes family bought the company in 1956 and has owned it ever since. From an early focus on the lower Star Valley in Wyoming, the company’s service areas have grown in western Wyoming and been extended to include parts of eastern Idaho.

Sessions joined Silver Star in 2002 in the human resources department. She progressed to sales and then was named to oversee the company’s wireless business. She subsequently moved to the operations side as director of operations in 2011. She later was named chief operations officer (COO), swapped roles briefly with the CFO, and then returned to the COO seat 12 months later. Sessions was named president in September 2021 – shortly after receiving the 2021 FTTXcellence Award for overseeing the CARES-funded fiber to the premises (FTTP) deployments.

Care with CARES

The CARES projects took place over a four-month period between August and December in 2020 and focused on a pair of markets, one each in Wyoming and Idaho. While the current supply chain shortages hadn’t yet begun, labor resources were already getting scarce. So Sessions had to plan well in advance of receiving the CARES grants to ensure a successful project.

“When we started hearing that these grants might become available, we went out and purchased several million dollars in supplies and fiber and in conduit, knowing that if for some reason we either weren't successful or the grants didn't happen, that we would utilize them probably the next year during our capital construction build,” Sessions recalls. “So we were playing it a little risky. And then we started reaching out to contractors and getting them looped in on the projects that we wanted to do.”

The search for such contractors took Sessions to the U.S. East Coast and beyond. “We had lined up several contractors which, it turned out, weren't nearly enough,” she says. “We were actually talking to a gentleman out of Canada, knowing that with our winter that we may need to bring in somebody who could continue to work through the frost.”

The labor shortages and impending winter made for an intense deployment schedule. In particular, Sessions saluted the government officials in Driggs, ID, and in Lincoln County, Wyoming, with whom Silver Star partnered on the two projects. “It was challenging for them because in order to make this happen, we were working six and seven days a week and we were working 12-, 13-, 14-hour days,” Sessions said of the Driggs officials. “And so they really had to step up with their staffing to help facilitate our needs to make this happen. So they were just a fantastic partner. And same thing with Lincoln County; they had to do the same thing in our Wyoming market.”

Thanks to proper planning and project management, Silver Star managed to finish both deployments efficiently and on time. Whereas the company applied for just over $17 million in Wyoming with a goal of passing 2154 customers, Silver Star spend only $14.3 million and passed just under 2900 customers. The company has hooked up the infrastructure to XGS-PON equipment and optical network terminals (ONT) from Calix.

Looking ahead

As challenging as the CARES projects proved to be, the present environment may be even thornier. “We continue to face supply chain issues, obviously, just like the rest of the industry,” Sessions noted this past August. For this reason, they are building inventory and planning out further than in the past. “Instead of planning just 12 to 18 months ahead from a supply chain perspective, we're planning 18 to 24 to 36 months depending upon how far out a particular item is. So right now, where we're seeing ribbon fiber at 52 weeks, we're starting to plan for 2024 and what that inventory forecast looks like.”

Meanwhile, inflation is affecting the price of everything from fuel to black tape to wooden posts. And labor shortages continue, particularly for high-skill positions.

Nevertheless, Sessions believes Silver Star is in relatively good shape. “Right now we have a backlog of projects just because of the sheer demand. But I wouldn't say we're pushing things out because of supply and/or labor. We're trying to utilize a lot of contract labor, and because we've done a really good job of forecasting, we're still in really good shape from a supply chain perspective,” she stated. “It’s just we've had to become a lot better at planning ahead instead of just being able to pick up the phone and get 10,000 feet of conduit in two or three weeks; it's several months [now instead].

“So it's actually been good for us to get a lot better at the way we run our business and forecasting,” Sessions concluded. “That hasn't been a bad thing.”

All of which should bode well for the citizens of Wyoming and Idaho who will benefit from the new USDA RUS grants.

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About the Author

Stephen Hardy | Editorial Director and Associate Publisher, Lightwave

Stephen Hardy is editorial director and associate publisher of Lightwave and Broadband Technology Report, part of the Lighting & Technology Group at Endeavor Business Media. Stephen is responsible for establishing and executing editorial strategy across the both brands’ websites, email newsletters, events, and other information products. He has covered the fiber-optics space for more than 20 years, and communications and technology for more than 35 years. During his tenure, Lightwave has received awards from Folio: and the American Society of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) for editorial excellence. Prior to joining Lightwave in 1997, Stephen worked for Telecommunications magazine and the Journal of Electronic Defense.

Stephen has moderated panels at numerous events, including the Optica Executive Forum, ECOC, and SCTE Cable-Tec Expo. He also is program director for the Lightwave Innovation Reviews and the Diamond Technology Reviews.

He has written numerous articles in all aspects of optical communications and fiber-optic networks, including fiber to the home (FTTH), PON, optical components, DWDM, fiber cables, packet optical transport, optical transceivers, lasers, fiber optic testing, and more.

You can connect with Stephen on LinkedIn as well as Twitter.

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