Rural electric cooperatives are becoming the backbone of America's high-speed internet access. With tens of billions in funding allocated for unserved and underserved areas, community organizations like First Electric Cooperative Corporation (FECC), and their wholly-owned subsidiary, Connect2First, have discovered a new purpose - increasing the quality of life for the rural communities they serve.
FECC started deploying a fiber backbone in late 2021 to support connectivity to all its substations and has since successfully delivered 3,500 miles of fiber and connected 11,000 rural households in the last 18 months.
FECC’s success was enabled by working with Irby Utilities, a turnkey utility infrastructure distribution company, and Render’s network construction and operations technology to eliminate complexity and build at the speed required to satisfy their community’s demand.
Last month, leaders from all three organizations joined a panel discussion to share how this leading cooperative is navigating challenges associated with permitting, materials supply and waste reduction, funding, data integration and more.
Below are the five key principles that have been instrumental in efficiently delivering FECC’s fiber network:
1. Optimize materials and reduce waste
Using Render, project teams could accurately forecast the workforce and materials needed and drill down to individual crews to see if they had tendencies for higher waste or excessive material usage. Work instructions at the task-level share how much material is needed, and real-time data insight enabled Irby to make the most of its inventory on any given day.
“Render enables you to account for every single nut and bolt within the project,” said Joshua Collver, Telecommunication Operations Manager, Irby Utilities.
2. Navigate permit bottlenecks
Permitting is one of the top barriers to successful deployment for nearly all networks today and Connect2First and Irby shared how they are navigating this. Due to Render’s GIS accuracy and granular representation of the network design, Irby used screenshots out of the platform and submitted these as construction prints for the permitting approval process.
Permitting dependencies are built-in to Render’s software from the initial scope, and the technology will not allow the release of work tied to a permit until an approved permit is loaded into the system. Information shared with the field teams includes a photo of the approved permit, the permit number and agency, and when it starts and expires.
“The last thing we want to be hampered by is something administrative like permitting when these crews are under such high demand right now. Render really helps us speed up and keep crews moving.” Robby Theodore, Manager, Outside Fiber Planet, FECC
“The highest budget line on a project is labor, and workforce shortages are crippling projects. The last thing you want is for a crew to pick up and move onto another project because you can’t keep them busy”
3. Manage redline changes seamlessly
No network design ever matches the conditions found in the real world. Throughout the FECC project, construction crews could easily make necessary changes to the design in real time, with automated workflows to approve or flag any issues.
Construction crews could make geometry changes in the field, update redlines in real-time, take before and after photos for traceability, and upload these as they’re constructing without any paper prints needed.
“We all know a design looks great, but when you get out there, it’s another story. There’s a high-pressure water main going down one side of the road, and you need to go to the other side of the road and build instead," said Theodore.
"With Render, the foreman in the field can make geometry changes, update redlines in real-time, upload before and after photos as they’re constructing and this is immediately reflected in the network record."
4. Prioritize, manage and account for funding areas
FECC was fortunate enough to benefit from a number of federal and state grants and city bonds to accelerate high speed to their unserved communities. All funded areas were preloaded into Render at the start of the project, then automatically grouped and associated with a specific funding program.
The project teams could then sequence these as priority tasks, group and filter all associated tasks, and download relevant as-built data for use in funding reimbursement. Materials and labor units and contractor payments could then be easily accounted to the program funding, separate from the main scope, for faster processing and reimbursement.
“In a network, everything is contiguous. It's important for us to be able to see funded and priority locations and where they sit across our total network. How are we going to construct them and serve them efficiently? Render really helped us to have visibility of the total project, but then also be able to filter and separate funded locations as needed,” said Theodore.
5. Integrated platforms enable end-to-end automation and efficiency
FECC utilized Irby’s best-in-class digital platform model that seamlessly integrates Azotel as a customer service platform, Render for construction and handover to operations and VETRO FiberMap to manage the network. As customers sign up via Azotel, a drop task is automatically triggered in Render and issued to the contractors looking after the drops component of the network. Conversely, when the construction drop is complete, the customer service team is notified that it is ready for installation. As drops are completed, the as-built data and photos are updated in VETRO to then manage the plant facilities. The FECC team initially aimed for 400-500 drops per month and has organically grown to 800 drops per month, doubling the initial goal with significantly less effort.
“We are going at a really, really fast pace. I think the project originally called for six years. We're now at 50% completion after just two years of construction."
FECC initially expected the entire project build to take six years. With FECC and Irby teams using Render’s software, the cooperative is at 50% completion in only two years, with over 11,000 members connected.
Highlights of the panel with First Electric Cooperative, Irby Utilities and Render can be viewed below: