Rural telephone companies harvest fiber to the farm

Oct 1st, 1995

Rural telephone companies harvest fiber to the farm

ben harrison

Many communications experts contend that connecting fiber-optic cables to the home is unlikely to occur in the near future. However, these experts may not be aware of what is happening in rural America today with independent telephone companies.

Several independent telephone companies and a company known as Optical Solutions Inc., in Bemidji, MN, are starting field trials to bring fiber to the home to rural locations in Minnesota and Kansas. For example, East Otter Tail Telephone Co., in Perham, MN, has signed a letter of intent to buy fiber-to-the-home products and use them in a trial for 100 homes. According to Communications Consultants Inc., a Fargo, ND-based engineering consulting company for East Otter Tail Telephone, the cost estimate for this field trial totals $750,000 --including expenses for outside plant, digital loop carrier, field-trial equipment from Optical Solutions and fiber-optic cable.

Jerry Theodorson, plant manager at East Otter, says he does not think his customers` needs will be served in the future with twisted-pair copper wire. Fiber to the home will provide them with enhanced voice, data and video services.

"We hope to get our plant upgraded before winter because not much happens here during the winter months," he says. "What Optical Solutions offers seems promising. We also consider ourselves in the cable-TV business, and this experiment with fiber to the home, involving approximately one-eighth of one of our exchanges, should be in place by the spring of 1996."

Another telephone company in western Minnesota has signed an agreement with Optical Solutions for a fiber-to-the home trial involving 65 homes in Alberta, MN, with an estimated project cost of $356,000. This figure includes almost $240,000 for Optical Solutions` equipment, $36,000 for related multiplexing equipment and $80,000 for fiber-optical cable. Authorized by the Board of Directors of Federated Telephone Cooperative in Chokio, MN, this small farming community trial will offer a number of broadband communications services.

Fiber to the barn

According to Don Roiland, Federated`s manager, the telephone company staff will gain experience in emerging technology, new equipment and fiber optic-cable distribution techniques. He has been waiting for equipment that allows fiber to be used in the last miles to the home and barn. In his area, curbside terminals usually serve only one home and barn; Optical Solutions` equipment is expected to fill that niche.

The Federated Telephone Cooperative serves seven rural exchanges in the rolling plains of western Minnesota. These exchanges have been served with modern digital switches for eight years and have cooperated by converting connected fiber-optic cables into a ring system. Most of the company`s 2000 customers live on medium-sized farms, some with cattle, hog and dairy operations.

Federated Telephone is implementing a plan to establish intermediate points that connect the company and customers with fiber-optic cable. The project will produce useful information about an all-fiber-optic system for rural telecommunications customers.

Dean Sorum, an engineering consultant in Fargo, has worked with Federated Cooperative to develop equipment for the rural area. He is especially interested in finding ways to power equipment from the network, which is important in Minnesota because of its vast area.

Other field trials using Optical Solutions` products are being evaluated by independent telephone companies, including Lenora, KS-based Rural Telephone Co. and Wilson Telephone Co., in Wilson, KS, whose trials involve 35 homes and 40 to 60 homes, respectively.

According to Joel Jakubson, senior analyst with Ryan, Hankin, Kent Inc., in San Francisco, "With the exception of fiber-in-the- riser applications in high-rise buildings, the application of fiber-in-the-loop technologies is being targeted more and more to less-dense applications." He adds, "This is because the cost of a copper loop for the rural service increases dramatically with increased loop length, so it is much easier to prove in fiber deeper in the network. New companies such as Advanced Fiber Communications, E/O Networks and Optical Solutions are addressing progressively less-dense applications with their distributed digital loop carrier, fiber-to-the-curb and fiber-to-the-home solutions."

Identity is also a problem for new rural independent telephone companies such as East Otter Tail and Federated Telephone, which are not as well-known or as powerful as the regional Bell operating companies. According to Jeff Carlson, president of Optical Solutions, many independent telephone companies are located in the Midwest. In fact, Chris Collins, director of media relations for the United States Telephone Association in Washington, DC, says there are more than 1456 independent telephone companies in the United States, with more than 647 of them located in the Midwest. These companies provide Midwest subscribers with more than 149 million access lines. "But they do not have the visibility of the Bell companies," Collins says.

"Independent telephone companies are the carriers of last resort; the Bells did not want to wire rural America as much as they wanted to wire Wall Street," he adds. "These independent telephone companies are subject to rigorous regulation by the Federal Communications Commission and state regulatory bodies."

Some independent telephone companies in Minnesota and Kansas are using Optical Solutions` fiber-to-the-home Universal Demarcation Point (patent pending). This box is mounted on a subscriber`s home to act as an interface between the fiber-delivery system and the inside wiring. The product works effectively for low-density networks, according to Carlson.

Also, he notes that the company`s transmission platform allows rural telephone companies to meet and exceed the statewide telecommunications modernization plan transmission requirements as part of telecommunications measures being acted upon by Congress (see Lightwave, September 1995, page 3).

"Everyone speaks about fiber to the home as an ultimate goal in fiber communications networking. Fiber to the home is making practical and business sense in rural America today," Carlson says.

But how expensive is it for these rural telephone companies? Carlson estimates that the telephony cost per subscriber is $350 to $500. Other estimated costs are $600 to $700 for broadband transmission and $400 to $500 for premises wiring. "These are equipment costs only; they do not include fiber-cable costs," Carlson explains. He says customers of these rural telephone companies should not expect their telephone bills to increase. "They will have additional benefits of voice, data and video over fiber-optic lines at no additional charge."

Rural fiber to the home is becoming a reality via the Universal Demarcation Point subscriber interface. The communications path goes from a rural telephone company`s central office to an optical network unit that connects 96 subscribers. The path then extends to a fiber distribution splice point to reduce the fiber count between the optical network unit and the universal demarcation point, which is mounted on a subscriber`s home. For fiber-to-the-home applications, the point accepts a plug-in optical receiver module capable of accepting analog and digital signals.

The optical receiver uses a low-loss, low-noise high impedance matching circuit. The result is an efficient optical-to-electrical conversion to levels suitable for subscriber services. A transmitter capable of providing voice, data or video from the customer premises allows for additional revenue-producing services such as pay-per-view, interactive multimedia and energy management.

Carlson says future plans include a central processing unit module for unit identification and control. Universal demarcation point diagnostics and its switching capability can reduce the costly change of service and maintenance calls. A program control module can be configured to control video services, while maintaining security.

He explains that this demarcation point allows a variety of services from plain old telephone services to interactive media. Fiber optics possesses the capacity for synchronous optical network service for telephony and video services, be it analog today or digital for the future.

Telephony service is provided using a digital loop carrier system. Within the small subscriber areas, service can be provided to 24 lines. At this demarcation point, POTS/ switched POTS, switched 56-kilobit-per-second service, pay/coin, integrated services digital network, two- and four-wire ear and mouth, and data can be delivered.

Analog video service is carried over fiber-optic lines from the central office to the optical network unit, where received signals are converted to electrical form, amplified and directed into another transmitter. By repeating the signal, a greater optical reach is achieved using distributed feedback laser technology. The optical signal is directed from the repeat point into a planar waveguide star coupler and delivered to the subscriber premises.

Telephony and video services are carried over fiber-optic cable to a remote optical network unit, which connects 96 subscribers. Each node covers a service area of approximately 3 miles. Typical nodes include a 48-channel business bank with voice subscriber cards, a 6-megabit-per-second multiplexer as a minimum requirement, a 72-port fiber distribution panel, a line interface unit and an alarm control unit.

A 16-port star planar waveguide coupler distributes video services from the ONU to the universal demarcation point at the subscriber location. Where applicable, Carlson says, a fiber distribution point between the ONU and subscriber points use existing fiber plant and minimize material and construction costs. q

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