Super Regional Fiber Optic Network Delivers 4G and Broadband

They say everything is bigger in Texas, and that holds true in the digital and broadband arena, especially when deploying a network in the western part of the state. Among the nation’s leading providers of high performance fiber optics, FiberLight LLC has been working with KCI to design and build a dedicated wireless backhaul network that will support 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) expansion for a leading wireless carrier. At more than 3,500 route miles in length, serving an area greater than 20,000 square miles, it is the largest and most aggressive telecommunications project in the history of both organizations.

KCI immediately started helping us identify who we needed to engage and who we needed to start getting agreements with. They were instrumental in providing the base facts to work through the paperwork necessary to place infrastructure on poles or in right-of-way.

Judd O. Carothers, FiberLight Executive Vice President

KCI was initially brought in to provide engineering design and permitting for the first 1,700-mile segment of a new fiber optic ring that would eventually connect 277 existing cellular towers throughout the region. Both firms originally approached the project using the staged and sustainable strategy typically implemented for dark fiber, which is unlit fiber optic cable available for lease, but this is no traditional dark fiber ring. With nearly 600 miles of cable in the ground in less than three months, the team realized a course adjustment was needed. FiberLight asked KCI to take on more responsibility, serving as project, program, construction and inventory manager as well as designer.

West Texas Fiber Optic Network Underground
The project changed from a primarily aerial build to nearly 90 percent underground because the pole attachment approval process often takes three to six months, and although placing conduit is often more expensive it keeps the ring moving forward. Heavy sawing was necessary in many locations because of the varied West Texas terrain.
West Text Fiber Optic Network Ranch Sign
KCI had to work with property owners to access many tower sites. Some Texas ranches are so big, that the properties are broken down into 640-acre or one-square-mile sections for identification and navigation purposes. One spread is larger than the state of Rhode Island.

Focus also shifted from route miles to tower sites. “We needed every domino to fall into place to keep lighting the ring around.” said FiberLight Executive Vice President Judd O. Carothers. “Unlike any other provider that typically deploys a network of this size, the infrastructure wasn’t in place. We had to build tower to tower to deliver services.” The average distance between towers is 26 miles.

 

Geography created major design and construction challenges. Routes crossed both rural and urban areas. Engineers had to negotiate with numerous land owners—at one site 18 individual ranches—to access towers situated on private property, often miles from public right-of-way. Crews were warned of possible drug cartel activity at some locations, while others were only accessible via ATV. Urban alignments faced different complications, ranging from congested poles to boring through a web of underground utilities.

The deployment schedule was a driving force behind all aspects of the project. The wireless carrier had launched an active television and radio campaign announcing the network upgrade, and customers began purchasing 4G equipment. With activation dates set and FiberLight requiring additional segments, KCI quickly expanded to a local staff of more than 20. The firm also rented an apartment in San Angelo and houses in Odessa and Amarillo to serve as office and home-base to employees who were working between 80- and 100-hour weeks and driving five to eight hours each day to maintain the project’s momentum.

West-Texas-4G-LTE-Wireless-Fiber-Field-Design
Widespread cellular dead zones were constant obstacles to real time data collection, but engineers and inspectors were able to upload at least once each day.

“There was no way we were going to get this project done using traditional methods,” said project manager Michael L. Myers. “Once we took over project management, we had to retool to create a detailed thematic reporting system and establish a process to capture information.” Mapping and related geospatial data was used to identify breakdowns and generate regular status updates. “The ability to display spatial distribution of attributes on the geographic area of a project in real time, combined with the program management process, is an industry first” said Dutch Schultz, who before joining KCI served as Verizon’s West Coast director of network engineering and planning. “These capabilities significantly enhance the ability to view, understand and manage a large project.”

West-Texas-4G-LTE-Wireless-Fiber-geospatial-innovation
The GIS system used real-time data to create thematic mapping that assisted the team in tracking progress and managing materials inventory.

 

With nearly 80 percent of the routes designed and half of the fiber in place, the project should be complete later this year. When the ring is fully deployed, the nearly one million residents that live in the West Texas region will have access to broadband, thanks to the ambitious, innovative and dedicated team of KCI and FiberLight managers and engineers that were able to accomplish this monumental task. “No one to date has built and lit a ring intermittently as you complete it,” said Carothers. “On top of that, we averaged 50 miles a week, placing more than 1,000 route miles of new plant and lighting nearly 50 towers in 12 months. That’s phenomenal for anybody.”