Del. Electric Cooperative’s new fiber network to improve reliability, offer options

DOVER — The partnership of Delaware Electric Cooperative and Lightower Fiber Networks is nearing completion of their 250-mile, all fiber network across the co-op’s service territory in Kent and Sussex counties.

“The project cost roughly $2 million, and we expect it to be completed some time well within the first quarter of 2017,” said spokesman for Delaware Electric Cooperative, Jeremy Tucker.

The chief benefits the Mr. Tucker says the upgrades offer are improved reliability for co-op members in central and southern Delaware and an opportunity for broadband service in rural communities.

“For years we’ve been using a system here at the co-op that connected a bunch of our substations together,” he said. “Lightower is providing an opportunity for us to have a more secure, faster connection while at the same time providing the opportunity for a third party to come in and offer cheap broadband service to rural consumers and businesses.”

After the new network is completed, broadband providers will have the option to purchase additional fiber lines owned by Lightower, which could expand affordable broadband service.

The above map shows where the new fiber was installed across Delaware Electric Cooperative’s service territory. The dark green lines indicate areas of existing fiber and the light green lines represent everything that has been installed as part of the co-op and Lightower Partnership. The names in bold are the co-ops substations, which will be brought under more reliable and quick control as past of the upgrade. The aerial strand portion of the project represents all the fiber lines placed on the Co-op’s utility poles — this portion of the project is complete. The overall construction includes all progress on infrastructure work taking place inside substations that will ties the system together. As of late Nov. 2016, it was 95 percent complete. (Delaware Electric Cooperative map)

The above map shows where the new fiber was installed across Delaware Electric Cooperative’s service territory. The dark green lines indicate areas of existing fiber and the light green lines represent everything that has been installed as part of the co-op and Lightower Partnership. The names in bold are the co-ops substations, which will be brought under more reliable and quick control as past of the upgrade. The aerial strand portion of the project represents all the fiber lines placed on the Co-op’s utility poles — this portion of the project is complete. The overall construction includes all progress on infrastructure work taking place inside substations that will ties the system together. As of late Nov. 2016, it was 95 percent complete. (Delaware Electric Cooperative map)

The co-op, which currently offers service to around 92,000 customers, is adding around 2,000 to 3,000 new services per year.

“We’re almost back on par with where we were in terms of growth during the housing boom,” said Mr. Tucker.

Although the majority of the co-op’s customers are residential and agricultural users, they do have some clients with larger needs.

“Our largest users are actually the Kent County Wastewater Treatment plant in Frederica and Baltimore Aircoil Co. just outside of Milford,” Mr. Tucker said. “We don’t serve a lot of large businesses yet, because we serve the rural areas, but with this broadband project we’re hopeful that it’ll be a way to attract some of these larger users to the area.”

Mr. Tucker noted that he’s heard in the past that larger corporations, especially those specializing in technology, have had trouble relocating to Kent County because the broadband infrastructure hasn’t been in place for their operation. He’s optimistic that this project will remove that obstacle.

The co-op claims that the new fiber network will provide communication to the utilities’ substations, electrical equipment and its headquarters building in Greenwood. The entire electrical system relies on the ability of co-op engineers to quickly communicate with connected devices in the field. These devices can isolate electrical problems and restore power. They also alert employees to possible issues with the system that could lead to outages, says Mr. Tucker. Lightower’s broadband service will allow the co-op to communicate with these remote devices faster, leading to faster power restoration and shorter outages. The fiber will also provide the co-op with one secure network connecting all electrical devices without the use of an Internet connection. Engineers will be able to efficiently communicate with electrical equipment in the field and quickly identify the cause of power outages.

The co-op also claims that these capabilities will be invaluable to local residents and businesses in emergency situations,

“How do we turn the lights back on faster for members during a hurricane or blizzard? We need fast, secure, reliable and scalable communication and Lightower will be able to provide the co-op with these capabilities,” said Bill Andrew, President and CEO of Delaware Electric Cooperative.

Mr. Tucker also points out that the project will help the co-op expand its technical capabilities in the future. For instance, as a result of the new network, reliability projects will be expanded and cameras and security equipment may be added across the system.

“Lightower worked very closely with Delaware Electric Cooperative to design a custom solution that not only exceeds their requirements for today, but that also essentially future-proofs them as their network needs grow down the road,” explained Rob Shanahan, CEO of Lightower. “The scale, performance, and reliability of this DEC network will help them to serve their customers better by allowing them to focus on delivering electricity, while Lightower manages the network. We also look forward to working with DEC members to bring these advanced networking solutions to businesses across Delaware.”

While the current expansion is forward-looking, Mr. Tucker already feels that the co-op offers some of the most reliable and cheapest service in the state, which he feel makes Kent County a great location for a growing business.

“We are constantly planning for what comes next — the grid of the future is all interconnected and we want to be able to control all our devices from here at the co-op; this broadband project is a huge step in that direction,” he said. “Part of the benefit of being a co-op customer is that we’re member-owned, so whatever profits we post is returned to consumers. Because of this, we offer the lowest annualized electric rate in the state. So there is savings associated with opening a business that is served by the co-op.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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