Building Community Links for the Commonwealth of Virginia
As remote working and online learning skyrocketed during the pandemic, home data usage increased by 18% and internet connectivity became vital. Yet many underserved rural communities across the United States continue to struggle with insufficient broadband access for essential work, telemedicine, distance learning, and community services.
About 25 percent of rural communities do not have reliable broadband access, according to the FCC. While the FCC and other government and private organizations have emphasized the need to bridge the digital divide, getting there is easier said than done. Nonetheless, many utilities and municipalities have at their disposal some of the necessary resources, such as installed customer base and existing rights of way, necessary to build high-speed broadband networks in small towns and rural communities – the Large Internet service providers (ISP) service areas most often overlook due to low population density.
For example, although Virginia is currently the 10th most connected state in the United States, at least 12% of its population lives in rural areas that still lack broadband access. The best hope for these residents to achieve faster connectivity lies with the local power co-ops.
New Castle, Virginia is home to the headquarters of the Craig-Botetourt Rural Electric Cooperative. Much of CBEC’s service area is heavily forested and mountainous, with an average population density of less than six homes per mile. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
For the common good
In a rural area of ââsouthwestern Virginia, Craig-Botetourt Rural Electric Cooperative (CBEC) has reliably served the local community for 85 years, providing electrical service to residents, small businesses and family farms. CBEC also happens to be Virginia’s smallest electric co-op.
Covering parts of seven counties on heavily forested mountainous terrain, much of which is owned by state or federal forest services, the CBEC service area has an average population density of less than six households. per mile. A lack of ISP service options meant many residents and businesses were trying to cope with DSL and dial-up connections lower than average download speeds of 3Mbps or less.
When CBEC recognized the need of its members for essential broadband Internet access, the utility decided to deploy a new fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband network. But without an existing dark fiber network in place, the co-op determined it needed a partner to help its 25 employees build a new fiber optic network.
CBEC selected Fujitsu as its primary broadband network and integration partner, responsible for network design and construction, multi-vendor hardware and software provisioning, network and systems integration, testing and commissioning of services. After Fujitsu developed a broadband rollout plan for the co-op, the next step was for CBEC to establish a subsidiary to administer the Bee Online Advantage Internet service, as required by the State Corporation Commission of Virginia.
Watch out for gaps
Deployment began in February 2020, starting with the installation of the fiber optic network and plans for a phased FTTP deployment. The CBEC has received support from the Botetourt County government to apply for a grant from the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) program, which aims to achieve universal broadband access in Virginia by 2024.
CBEC and Fujitsu selected Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON) technology for the new network, with fully dielectric self-supporting fiber optic cable (ADSS) installed over existing CBEC utility poles. Overhead fiber simplified deployment and only a small percentage of the poles had to be replaced. But a broadband network deployment over rugged, mountainous terrain presents logistical challenges even under the best of circumstances – and 2020 has turned out to be anything but typical.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, as the need of co-op members to access essential internet became more critical, members of the CBEC board of directors and the local county government quickly decided to extend the project beyond its initial scope. In October 2020, the deployment footprint was widened and the deployment timeline was accelerated to meet the year-end deadline to qualify for CARES Act funding.
With less than eight weeks to complete phase two of building the network, project managers needed to mobilize resources and quickly synchronize project elements. However, the tight deployment schedule was further compounded by the ripple effects of the ongoing pandemic.
âThe pandemic has impacted not only our global supply chain, but also the resource availability of many of our partners,â said Greg Manganello, senior vice president and head of wireless and service solutions at Fujitsu Network Communications, Inc. âWhen customers choose Fujitsu, in addition to calling on our digital transformation experts, they also have access to our supply chain professionals. In this case, they worked closely with our ecosystem partners to ensure the right components, materials and delivery times. Next, our internal program managers aligned deliveries with our resource plans to complete network deployment and integration on schedule.
Deployment of the broadband network was simplified with a fully dielectric, self-supporting fiber optic cable installed on existing CBEC utility poles. (Photo courtesy of CBEC) nbsp;
The fiber optic cable is split in the fiber distribution hub (pictured) to allocate broadband service to each household or business. (Photo courtesy of CBEC)
Changing the trajectory
Despite the challenges of geography and a broken supply chain, the first two phases of the new CBEC broadband network, covering 53 miles, were completed by the end of 2020. The new FTTP service offers speeds of up to 300 Mbps, passing nearly 750 homes and small businesses. About 10 months after the service was made available, the cooperative had achieved a 42% subscription rate for its Internet and digital voice over IP services, and the subsidiary had become independent.
âWe have achieved a significant milestone in the first year, and the provision of improved broadband is a driving force for the future economic development of our community,â said Jeff Ahearn, CEO of CBEC. “The main challenge was not the demographics of our region, but rather the economies of scale.”
Fujitsu worked closely with CBEC to help train CBEC technical support staff to manage and troubleshoot a fiber optic network and to set up new subscribers before handing over network management entirely to CBEC. In one case, a CBEC technician was able to gain hands-on training by observing several Fujitsu engineers as they investigated and repaired some initial issues in the field.
âWe were facing a pretty tight deadline to complete the network and find subscribers, but once we got over the growing pains it became second nature,â Ahearn said. âWe were able to train existing staff and now we feel comfortable with our current processes. “
Since commissioning its network, CBEC has heard from several of its cooperative members about the impact of broadband connectivity in their community. For example, an owner who had planned to sell chose to stay now that broadband service is available.
A teacher trying to teach at home during the pandemic found that posting homework and conducting classes online on virtual video and audio platforms was nearly impossible due to latency issues and unstable connectivity. Indeed, before having access to broadband at home, she had to go to school to access the Internet.
âWe have lots of testimonials from small business owners who weren’t able to start their business until they got our service,â Ahearn commented. âWe also hear from real estate agents that there is great potential for future commercial and residential development in the area that was not there before.
âHigh-speed broadband service is changing the trajectory of a community’s economic prosperity,â Manganello said. âCBEC members can now connect online; work, study and shop remotely; and participate equally in the benefits of the digital economy while staying at home.
Based on the improvements it has made to the community so far, CBEC looks forward to planning and implementing phase three of its broadband network to reach almost 20% of its service territory. However, even now, Virginia’s smallest co-op has already made a significant impact.
Anthony Bednarczyk is the Broadband Practice Manager at Fujitsu Network Communications.