Virginia utility blazes triple-play trail

As the controversy continues in many states over whether it is legal for municipal electric utilities to provide retail or wholesale communications services, Bristol Virginia Utilities (BVU—Bristol, VA) has moved forward with its plan to offer customers a triple-play package of voice, video, and high-speed data. The Virginia utility took on the state legislature in federal court and won permission to provide the services as a municipal electric system. Winning this long legal struggle has put BVU in a position to challenge other CLECs in its utility-service area.

"While our case was still in the court of appeals following a favorable outcome, we went before the state legislature and had legislation adopted that allowed municipals with electric systems—about a dozen or so—to have the potential of becoming CLECs," says Jim Kelley, vice president of operations for BVU's OptiNet. "The newly passed legislation states that any municipal with a headend in operation prior to Dec. 31, 2002 can also offer cable television services. Bristol is the only Virginia municipal that meets that requirement."

After winning its battle against the state, BVU evaluated several technologies for its communications network, including the use of hybrid fiber/coaxial cable, before deciding to move forward with fiber to the premises (FTTP) and its next-generation capabilities.

BVU opted to deploy a broadband passive optical network (BPON) based on the G.983 standard, which uses ATM transport over a single-fiber architecture as defined by the International Telecommunication Union-Telecommunication. The network supports voice, data, and video and consists of central office equipment, packet optical line terminals, and optical-network terminals (ONTs). For connection to the public-switched telephone network, the network links to a voice gateway that enables the delivery of packetized voice services by converting the packet data to circuit-switched voice and vice versa.

The ONT device resides at the customer premises and converts optical signals into the customer interfaces for phone lines. Data for the Internet is extracted and carried on an Ethernet connection. The ONT also converts optical video signals that go to a coaxial connector that can be connected to any television in the home. Voice, video, and data signals are all terminated in the home and carried via fiber to the core networks where the FTTP equipment and voice gateway process the voice and data. The video is optically routed through a WDM device connected to an RF video network.

In accordance with the G.983 BPON standard, the network uses three wavelengths: 1310, 1490, and 1550 nm. The 1310- and 1490-nm wavelengths are used for upstream and downstream bidirectional packet data for voice and data communications. The 1550-nm wavelength carries the broadcast video downstream. All the equipment in the system is managed by one management platform.

The BPON installation went extremely well, with a few minor "speed bumps" that come with deploying any cutting-edge technology, according to Kelley. The current network passes 10,000 homes.

"We have installed service to over 5,500 customers since starting business in February of 2003," says Kelley. "In order to keep up with our backlog, our water department's outside operations crews have gone from installing and maintaining water lines to installing fiber-optic services and mounting boxes on the sides of houses, and the electric personnel continue to construct new overhead fiber cabling. This has all been accomplished through on-the-job training with a learning curve that has been pretty steep—but our team has really done a great transitioning job."

The biggest challenges may lie ahead as BVU continues to scale the network. As a network expands, scenarios and questions sometimes come up that might not have been addressed in the vendor's lab. The vendor relationship that BVU has established helps both parties resolve issues quickly. This type of a customer relationship also gives the vendor the advantage of being able to apply real world knowledge in the design and improvement of the product.

Subscribers to the BVU network receive basic phone service for $14.64 per month, analog cable TV (more than 75 channels of expanded basic) for $36.75/month, and Internet service for $26.36/month. Digital cable TV with premium channels (more than 240 channels) can be purchased for $69.95/month. BVU customers are required to purchase a minimum of $44.95/month in services.

"We're extremely competitive regarding pricing for our services," says Kelley. "We are treated the same as any CLEC and are tariffed as are the incumbent providers. But as a CLEC, we don't have to charge any subscriber line fees, saving the residential customer over $5 a month right off the bat."

BVU plans to expand its fiber network through further deployment of this single-fiber architecture. The utility/service provider has just installed 23 mi of new infrastructure to Abingdon, VA, to serve new customers in that adjacent community. Plans also call for a 51-mi extension through Russell and Tazewell counties to Richlands, VA, to begin this month.

According to Kelley, the company is currently signing up 40–50 customers per week and has already surpassed its 2004 business plan numbers. With these results, FTTP technologies may soon get a much anticipated shot in the arm.

A trailblazer, BVU has become a reference model for other operators, utilities, and municipalities wishing to offer communications services. Because government agencies view competition within the telecom-provider industry favorably, any entity that wants to offer its citizens another option for communications services, particularly higher quality at a better price, poses a difficult case to argue against.

Mark Klimek is a senior director of "Fiber-to-the-User" product development at Alcatel (Paris).

More in FTTH/B