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Does Fiber Have a Role in the Smart Grid? A Tennessee Utility Thinks So

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epblogoUtilities will have to make a major decision this year about what kind of networks to use for the smart grid, and many are looking to technologies like cellular, WiMAX, RF Mesh and broadband over power lines for their build-outs. But one of the more unique smart grid projects we’ve heard about comes courtesy of a fiber-optic network in the little town of Chattanooga in Tennessee. Municipal utility and communications company EPB is in the process of building out a $200 million fiber network for the city’s residents that will offer Internet, phone, video and — in an unusual twist — smart grid services.

Smart grid technology and energy management is a sort of hybrid version of the “quadruple play,” says Jim Ingraham, vice president, Strategic Planning for EPB, referring to a twist on the traditional quadruple play of services for broadband, which normally includes Internet, video, phone and mobile. While the smart grid likely won’t be part of the fiber quadruple play for most utilities, EPB says that by building out a fiber network — with a smart grid stimulus grant — the town will create almost $850 million in value from both communications and smart grid services, including things like jobs and energy savings.

“Fiber” or fiber optic cables use pulses of light to send data, and provide a reliable blazing-fast connection starting at 1.5 Mbps and going as high as 500 Mbps. Telecom companies like Verizon have been promising, and building out, fiber-to-the-home services — running video, Internet and voice over IP — for years. Some cities like Chattanooga have decided to build out their own networks, largely to use it as a way to boost economic prosperity in their regions, delivering jobs and high-speed connections for businesses.

EPB has teamed up with Tantalus to build a fiber-connected (and wireless-enabled) smart meter, which Ingraham said had to be specially built for EPB’s fiber network because of the rarity of using fiber for smart grid. Alcatel-Lucent is the company’s main communications fiber provider. The fiber network is about a third built out, and last year the utility pledged to have all of its residents connected to the network within five years.

But does a utility really need all that bandwidth for smart grid services, which largely include bits of information about energy and electrical systems (as opposed to an application like streaming video)? Probably not that much speed is required, but more utilities are looking at high-speed wireless options like WiMAX to add on extra bandwidth for additional applications.

Chattanooga’s fiber network is already being built out and will offer a whole lot more in terms of communications services. Ingraham also says it’s significantly cheaper for the utility to build out a fiber network, compared with other options like cellular, given the city’s location amid mountains and valleys. (That’s unusual because I had always heard valleys actually do well with wireless that has a big enough range.) In addition, Ingraham says the network is one of the most secure and reliable options for smart grid services, and it won’t have to be upgraded for 50-plus years — because it’s so fast — so will be cheaper in the long run.

The utility can also apply for a stimulus fund grant if it’s running smart grid services over its fiber network. Ingraham tells us that EPB has applied for $111 million from the Department of Energy for a $226 million total project to extend the fiber network out to the rest of the community.

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