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Alabama Power building a robust fiber network for reliability and to support rural communities

It’s 7 a.m. on a brisk but clear winter day in a rural section of Conecuh County, and crews are already hard at work.

A bright yellow Vermeer trenching machine, glowing in the morning sun, is steadily carving a channel in the red clay along an Alabama Power transmission line right of way, outside the town of Evergreen. As it moves along, four colorful strands of HDPE conduit – each 1¼ inches thick and made of durable polyethylene thermoplastic in blue, black, green and orange – are being laid down neatly in the soft earth, along with an orange ribbon of warning tape. The conduit flows smoothly off four large reels – one for each color. Each reel holds up to 5,000 feet, or nearly a mile of conduit.

Moments later, an excavator, following behind the trencher, covers the conduit with soil, its bucket sweeping back and forth. The expert crew of specialist contractors and Alabama Power supervisors keeps an eye on the process, providing quality control and ensuring safety.

A few minutes later, another team follows in a specially equipped pickup. A crew member, walking along the covered trench, carefully spreads native grass seed. He is followed by the pickup, sporting a mounted blower, which sprays straw over the seeds. The straw will hold the seeds in place until they germinate, returning the right of way to its original condition before construction.

About 10 miles to the west, on the edge of a pasture, another crew works under the same transmission line, but with a very different challenge. Here, the conduit has to cross under a 30-acre farm pond, at a depth of about 40 feet. That’s some 35 feet deeper than the trench being dug and covered near Evergreen.

At this spot, the team deploys a directional drill that looks like something out of a steampunk movie. The drill has a shelf that holds a heavy-gauge steel “cartridge” loaded with sections of drill rod. Methodically, the machine pushes the spinning rods, one by one, into the soil, creating a 1,200-foot tunnel through which the conduit will pass. Once the tunnel is dug, the rods are withdrawn while the conduit is pulled through – from the other side of the pond – so it can be connected to the miles of conduit already set into the ground under the transmission line that stretches behind the drill and over the horizon.

Yet another 5 miles to the west, on the edge of a cornfield, a third crew uses a special plow connected to the rear of a bulldozer to lay down more conduit along the same transmission line. Here, it’s a much faster process, with soft, tilled soil and flat terrain that makes the going much easier. The plow moves quickly, opening a narrow trench and laying down the conduit, with the crew swiftly backfilling behind the heavy equipment.

It’s all part of an ambitious project by Alabama Power to install underground fiber-optic technology along the company’s transmission lines – a project that promises multiple benefits, not only for power company customers but for the communities where the fiber is installed.

“It’s the communication backbone for everybody,” says David Skoglund, who supervises this project in south Alabama, which involves laying cable from Evergreen west, through Monroeville and on to Jackson. There, the project turns to the south, where it will ultimately connect to Alabama Power’s Plant Barry in Mobile County. In all, this project, which began in September 2021, covers about 120 miles.

Once the conduit is in place and safely buried, workers then thread the actual fiber-optic cables through one of the four conduits. Technically, the cable is “blown” through the conduit, using compressed air and a small parachute attached to the front of the line. On a good day, crews can install 5 miles of cable.

The other three conduits will remain empty for now, but ready to have cable quickly added when demand calls for additional fiber capacity. Installing the conduit now is the most efficient and cost-effective way to prepare for a future that’s expected to require more data shared even faster.

State leaders are increasingly focused on expanding access to broadband across the state, especially in rural communities. This week, Gov. Kay Ivey called the Alabama Legislature into a special session, where lawmakers are expected to direct a portion of federal pandemic relief dollars toward broadband expansion.

Alabama Power fiber-optic network will be good for the company and the community from Alabama News Center on Vimeo.

The current expansion and replacement of Alabama Power’s fiber-optic network, with its beginnings tracing back to the 1980s, strengthen the reliability and resiliency of the electrical grid in many ways. This technology brings state-of-the-art communication capability to the grid, allowing substations to communicate with each other. That capability enables the company to activate modern protection schemes that reduce both the number of customers affected by an outage and the outage’s duration. These same cables provide a reliable and secure communication backbone for Alabama Power facilities throughout the service territory, such as offices, control centers and generating plants.

The high-bandwidth capability of fiber provides for improved security at remote sites, using technologies such as high-resolution video. It also allows the company to expand a condition-based maintenance program for substation equipment – another plus for system reliability and resiliency.

And through partnerships, this upgraded fiber infrastructure can serve as an advanced telecommunication spine for the community, providing the fiber capacity needed for other services, such as high-speed internet, in areas of the state that don’t have it.

In a growing number of communities, Alabama Power is partnering with local providers and rural electric cooperatives to help bring in high-speed broadband and internet services, which are critical for business and economic development, education, public safety and health, and improved quality of life.

“We are excited about the possibilities that this fiber network can offer rural residents, as well as those in more urban areas,” says George Stegall, a manager on Alabama Power’s connectivity team.

Indeed, about an hour up Interstate Highway 65, in more urban Montgomery, another crew works to install fiber as part of a high-speed loop being constructed around the capital city. As in more rural communities, the fiber loop will provide the infrastructure for high-speed communications and data analysis for Alabama Power operations, and possible future broadband opportunities for the area.

In urban communities like Montgomery, fiber installation poses different challenges. For example, the fiber in some places has to be installed along much narrower rights of way and next to busy roadways. There are more streets and railroads to cross. Also, great care must be taken when installation is alongside other underground infrastructure, ranging from sewer, water and gas lines to existing underground electric, phone and cable lines. In other locations, terrain poses additional challenges; in some areas of west and east Alabama, for example, deep hollows and steep hills mean boring tunnels as deep as 100 feet.

Despite it all, installation work across the state is moving steadily forward – transforming the promise of a faster, more resilient communications network in Alabama into reality.

“I’m excited to be a part of this project, and to help bring high-speed connectivity to these communities,” Skoglund says as he eyes the conduit being set across the empty cornfield west of Evergreen. The work here was timed so it would not interfere with fall harvesting or spring planting.

“This is important, for these smaller towns and for the people who live here,” Skoglund adds. “It’s important for the state. I’m glad to have a small part in making it happen.”