Utilities use fiber for multimedia

Utilities use fiber for multimedia

lynn haber

Expanded telecommunications regulations, decreasing fiber-optic-technology costs and network upgrade demands are widening the business opportunities for public power companies to deliver diverse communications services (see Lightwave, April and May 1994, page 1). In fact, two Massachusetts community-owned electric utilities are installing fiber-optic rings that are positioning them as leading-edge providers of voice, video and data services.

In Braintree, MA, for example, a community located 10 miles south of Boston, the Braintree Electric Light Department has formulated a 10-year plan that not only includes delivering video, telephony and data services to the municipality but foresees having fiber connected to every home and business in Braintree.

Involved in an even more ambitious plan is the city of Newton, MA, located just west of Boston. A planned five-year project, derived by the town, includes the installation of an optical carrier, level 3 (155.52-megabit-per-second) synchronous optical network that will allow the town to explore emerging Sonet- and asynchronous transfer mode-based carrier services.

Although the delivery of multiple digital services over a single network by a single provider has been evolving for several years, the cost of installing high-speed digital networks has decreased to the price-point where small cities and towns can now afford to provide new communications technologies.

In Newton, Richard Walsh, the city`s director of management information services, says the plan had been evolving for three years. "Selling the idea to the city government was initially difficult because of cost," he says. However, with the steady decline of fiber network component and equipment costs and the city`s need to combine its police and fire dispatch systems, the timing was right.

At an estimated cost of $1 million, Newton will install around the city a seven-mile fiber-optic ring that will connect the fire department, the police department, city hall and the school system.

The wire division within Newton`s fire department is installing 48-strand singlemode fiber in conduits owned by Nynex, the area`s regional Bell operating company.

Even though the town of Braintree will benefit from the fiber-optic ring installed by the Braintree Electric Light Department, the utility had its own reasons for pursuing the high-speed network connection. As the federal government pushes for deregulation of the nation`s electric utilities industry, electric service providers are looking to bolster their competitive stance by enhancing the services they can offer to customers.

Deregulation of the nation`s electric utility companies would undercut exclusive territorial franchising, however. Customers would be able to choose their electricity provider in the same way they can choose their long-distance telephone company.

Because many electric utility companies already own the rights of way within cities and towns, those with fiber already installed are quickly lighting u¥dark fiber while others are busy pulling new fiber.

Interactive communications with business and residential customers will allow Braintree Electric to read meters, offer online energy rates, bill customers, accept payments and furnish E-mail.

Last year, Braintree Electric completed installation of its proprietary 72-fiber strand, 12-mile, 100-Mbit/sec fiber network. It is delivering digital carrier system, level 1 (1.544-Mbit/sec) voice communications and 10-Mbit/sec Ethernet services to the town`s municipal offices. The town will soon begin testing the delivery of video services, as well.

Braintree and Newton have installed a Premnet fiber-optic network from Racal-Datacom Inc. in Sunrise, FL. The system provides a modular, juiced-u¥time-division multiplexer and a matrix switch that allow users to mix and match data types, such as voice, video and data.

Although the product has been around for several years, the vendor recently added interface modules to provide integrated multimedia support for Sonet, ATM, local area network and non-LAN voice, video and data over a single fiber-optic backbone. "Premnet offers towns the capability to have T1, Ethernet and video in a single solution," says Robin Agarwal, senior marketing specialist of strategic fiber systems at Racal-Datacom.

The time-division multiplexer splits the fiber bandwidth into discrete 5-Mbit/sec slots. Therefore, a 100-Mbit/sec network allows the user to allocate 20 time slots for different applications, for instance, voice, video and data. Accordingly, a 155-Mbit/sec Sonet module provides 30 time slots. Racal-Datacom also offers a 200-Mbit/sec module.

Braintree selected Racal-Datacom`s proprietary 100-Mbit/sec Premnet module instead of an industry standard 100-Mbit/sec fiber distributed data interface network because FDDI can only carry routable traffic, namely Ethernet and token ring. Unlike Premnet, which is isochronous, FDDI cannot handle the delivery of timed video and audio traffic.

"We were looking for electronics that would use as few fibers as possible to transfer voice, video and data," says John R. Parker, business division manager at the Braintree Electric Light Department. An alternative to a Premnet solution is the installation of separate networks for the various desired applications.

Braintree`s fiber network has eliminated the need for, and cost of, T1 leased lines. The fiber also replaces the copper cable previously used to transmit data between the Braintree Electric Light Department and various town departments. For the past 10 years, Braintree Light has been the service data center for the town.

Braintree can also offer such video services as distance learning at the local schools, closed-circuit television for town meetings and highway traffic monitoring.

Having fiber in the ground not only gives Braintree Electric competitive clout, but also enables it to get into the communications business. "Some competitive access providers have already proposed partnering with us," says Parker. And, as a public entity, the utility company can offer cable TV, as well. "Right now, we`re exploring just how far into the communications business we want to venture," he adds.

Although the network is just getting started, Walsh is aware of the benefits of a fiber network. "Initially, we`ll see a cohesive data network throughout the town, and we`ll be providing video to the schools for distance learning," he says. Newton will also have digital signal, level 1 transport for T1 and Ethernet applications. "Down the road we may look into doing additional telephony," he adds. Newton`s contract with Nynex for Centrex services expires in two years.

Newton`s fiber network will also allow the city to eliminate one mainframe and other computer resource redundancies, install citywide electronic mail and eliminate employee sneakernet. Overall, the town expects a more efficient and centralized interactive computing environment.

Although he is not disclosing details, Agarwal reports that Racal-Datacom is discussing fiber-network installation with approximately a half-dozen cities and towns in Massachusetts, alone. q

Lynn Haber is a freelance writer based in Boston.

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