For many network operators in the country, installing fiber did not come out of a desire to be in the internet business. Instead, it was built as a means to modernize and monitor other systems—such as electrical grids—and later discovered to be so powerful it could bring high-speed internet to businesses and homes in the surrounding area.
In this week’s Fiber for Breakfast live video series, two officials from EPB, shared their story of how an electric utility got into the fiber business, and how it has helped build a modern electric grid with several different capabilities.
“We had no idea it was going to be as successful as it has been,” said Jim Glass, senior manager of smart grid development for EPB.
EPB—formerly known as the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, was founded in 1935 and serves about 10,000 people in the greater Chattanooga area. Originally, it served only as an electric utility. According to Rich Carpenter, senior manager of fiber network operations and fiber engineering for EPB, the utility launched a telecom program in 1999 and in 2010 became the first company in the U.S. to offer 1 gigabit high-speed internet. Five years later, it became the first community in the world to offer 10-gig internet service in its service areas.
But like many other electric utilities, the officials at ETB didn’t build the fiber optics network to get into the internet provider business. When the network was approved in the late 1990s, it was designed to modernize the network to build a cohesive smart grid.
A fiber backbone allows EPB to monitor the electric grid in real time. Switches are installed with fiber, which allows for automatic fault isolation and service restoration. Data can move back and forth from switches, circuits and transformers and ultimately end up with engineers at EPD headquarters.
Communications can move as fast as two seconds, allowing problems to be isolated quickly and restored. Other smart grids that do not have fiber as its underlying infrastructure can take up to six hours to once a day, which limits a utility’s ability to perform some of the functions EPB can do in real time.
It also gives more time for engineers to review data to prevent problems bubbling underneath the surface—meaning employees can fix problems and stop outages before they happen. Fiber also allows for remote software updates, which is a huge time saver for the utility.
“That has resulted in a little over 50% improvement in reliability of service that our customers see,” Glass said. “So it’s made a huge difference in our ability to provide reliable electric service, and our customers understand and appreciate that.”
Smart meters also allow for remote connection, meaning electricity can be turned off or on at any time from a remote location.
Glass said it’s a move toward the future. Instead of relying on one large, central power plant, a smart grid and network create smaller portals that are connected within the greater network.
The biggest thing using fiber has done for EPB is allow the system to be prepared for increased demand. As power needs and internet speeds have changed, EPBs system has had no problem undertaking it. Back in 1999 when EPB built out its fiber, they put in infrastructure that was capable of doing more than what was standard back then. It was a gamble that paid off.
Utilities looking to modernize—or those plagued with infrastructure problems that need to be addressed—should consider adding fiber.
“As smart grids get built across the U.S., utilities shouldn’t choose the communications infrastructure that meets today’s minimum requirements,” Glass said. “We put in a fiber infrastructure that was more capable of doing what we wanted it to do 10 years ago, but now as we start to move into distributed energy and microgrids, we recognize that was a smart decision that was needed down the road.”
Join us for our next Fiber for Breakfast live video series on Wednesday, July 8 at 10 a.m. ET. The topic: Fiber and 5G.