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CEO Close-Up: NRTC Knows a Thing or Two About Broadband Projects

Randy Sukow Jan 13, 2019

There are several ways to deliver broadband service to the home and every rural electric or telco is going to have a unique set of challenges. But for almost every project, the first step is to build a backbone fiber optic network, said NRTC CEO Tim Bryan on Friday at NRECA’s CEO Close-Up in Marco Island, FL.

The inspiration for Bryan’s presentation came from the current campaign of Farmers Insurance commercials with the slogan, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” NRTC has built a staff of more than 120 employees dedicated to broadband projects. They are working on or have completed 22 projects and built out 25,000 miles of fiber optic plant serving 260,000 rural homes and businesses.

NRTC has indeed seen a thing or two and some of them have not been pretty. “This is one of our member’s backbone [pictured] laying on the ground for two days … taken down by a contractor and not put back up,” Bryan said.

Incidents like these are why it pays to have experienced partners to help complete a broadband project. NRTC helps its members plan projects and test their feasibility, build out networks and sometimes assist in network operation. For a large portion of NRTC’s electric cooperative membership, the fiber backbone is the most important opening piece.

“The backbone is what puts it all together,” Bryan said. “It connects all the substations and brings all the data back to this bubble called ‘the utility intranet application data center,’” which covers a co-op’s high-speed utility needs. Once that is established, the question becomes, how much more investment will it take to apply that same backbone to home broadband?

“If you think you just want a backbone and you may never want to do broadband, you can make that decision,” he said. “But the cost for preparing broadband is perhaps 15 percent over the cost of the backbone if you do it at the same time.” The cost will be about 30-40 percent more if a co-op waits until later.

In some cases, the co-op might wish to expand slowly into broadband service, focusing on schools, hospitals and other large data customers before moving to home service. The cooperative also can explore alternatives to fiber throughout the network, using fixed wireless service to the home to save cost. “Serve members with last-mile broadband that works for you,” he said.

Holding to the theme of the importance of having partners with broadband experience, Bryan advised electric cooperatives to consider joining forces with local telcos who have been providing broadband service for several years. There are several examples where rural electric/telco projects have proven successful.

“We’ve seen it in Arkansas; we’ve seen it in Minnesota; we’ve seen it in Georgia; we’ve seen it in Indiana; we’ve seen it in Illinois; we’ve seen it in Ohio,” Bryan said. “This can happen if people are of like minds and they come together and talk about it, communicate about what they’re trying to achieve and avoid duplication of effort.”

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