Business & Technology
A new wire-free technology could allow the Johnson City Power Board to join other utilities in offering high-speed Internet service to customers without the expense of installing miles and miles of fiber optic cable.
“The upside is it’s a wireless system,” Chief Engineering and Technology Officer Mark Eades said last week, looking up at a metal antenna installed on a hill in Telford as part of the utility’s Advanced Metering Infrastructure system and a new array affixed just below it on the same pole. “The downside though, is it’s a wireless system.”
The ambitious test being undertaken by the Power Board is to see if the ring of transmitters fitted to the pole can be used to wirelessly control system devices in the field and supply customers with broadband Internet access, all without the expense of installing wires or fiber optic cables to the end points.
Freeing the Power Board from the costs of hardwiring the devices, homes and businesses is the upside to which Eades referred. The downside is that the wireless technology is basically line-of-site.
Any number of things could potentially interfere with the signal, including weather, foliage and the rolling landscape for which most of the Power Board’s 350 square miles of service area is known.
But so far, Eades said, at the 10 test sites — a mix of transmission devices, the residences of Power Board employees and one business customer — there haven’t been major losses of signal.
“We are very encouraged at this point,” Brian Bolling, the Power Board’s CFO and chief customer officer, said from the hill in Telford from which the test array beams. “We’re still very early in this testing phase, but if everything is successful with the test, we could put together a business model to see if it makes sense to implement this technology across the whole system.”
Supplying the signal to the wireless array is the Power Board’s 163-mile-long fiber optic backbone.
The utility installed the cables five years ago as part of its smart meter system, but built in much more bandwidth capacity than needed to run the meters in case technology or needs changed.
Using the wireless array initially produced a data transfer speed of 135 megabits per second, but Eades said technicians turned the speed down to produce symmetrical download and upload speeds of approximately 15megabits per second.
In the area, DSL and cable companies offer download speeds of up to 20 and 60 Mbps, respectively, but the upload speeds are much lower, often in the single-digits.
The Power Board explored offering its own broadband Internet service in 2012, then considered leasing fiber optic capacity to another Internet service provider, but the cost analysis of both prospects did not seem to yield the numbers the system targeted.
Bolling said if the test shows promise, the Power Board will crunch numbers to see if wirelessly controlling the devices and offering broadband service can pay for itself and provide extra revenue for reinvestment in maintenance and new technologies.
“Because we’re regulated by the TVA, any new venture would have to be self-supporting,” he said. “We can’t take money from electric customers and use it to support this new service, we’re not allowed to co-mingle funds like that.”
Eades, who manages the team monitoring the project, said the goal of the pilot test is to have an evaluation of the technology this year to be able to make a recommendation to the Power Board’s governing board to either pursue or drop implementing the wireless system.
If the system is implemented, arrays like the one in Telford could be installed not only on the six poles used for the advanced metering system, but potentially on any of the Power Board’s thousands of poles.
The wireless signal must also be received by a special device installed at homes, then translated to supply customers’ computers, tablets and phones. A common misconception, Eades said, is that people think they will be able to receive the signal straight to their mobile devices from anywhere in the Power Board’s service area.
“It operates at a different frequency,” Eades said. “We’re not blanketing everybody with wireless like you get from your router at home, we’re sending a wireless signal to your routers.”
Recently, a pair of rulings from the Federal Communications Commission have stirred opinions of the regulatory role of government in supplying Internet service.
The ruling that may impact the Power Board’s wireless project the most is the decision by the FCC to override state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina, allowing two petitioning municipal utilities to expand broadband Internet service outside the areas currently served by their electric system.
The ruling sets a precedent, if it stands up to legal challenges lodged against it, that could one day allow the Power Board to offer its wireless service beyond its defined territory, but Bolling said that’s far from the front of the project leaders’ minds right now.
“It’s hard to think of us going beyond our 350 square miles right now,” he said. “There’s just so much to do before we even get to that point. We’d have to definitely focus on providing service to our existing customers within those 350 square miles first, before we think of doing anything beyond that.”
As the project moves ahead, if the project moves ahead, Eades said the utility’s board of directors will receive regular updates on progress, from signal strength to estimated cost of implementation.
Follow Nathan Baker on Twitter @JCPressBaker. Like him on Facebook: www.facebook.com/jcpressbaker.
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