photo: equipment rack showing fiber connections

Fiber optics tech to revolutionize information, data flows for UGP

From telephone and telegraph lines to 14.4k modems and satellite internet, the speed at which humans push and pull information has exponentially increased with every passing decade. This ongoing desire to modernize, increase efficiencies and accelerate change puts WAPA’s Upper Great Plains region on the cusp of leaping forward the organization’s technology infrastructure.

Throughout UGP, nearly 3,000 miles of fiber optic cables stretch from eastern South Dakota into the northern Rocky Mountains of Montana. These fiber optic connections – an advancement of traditional telecommunications systems from the late 1990s that used television-coaxial cables – has not only increased the speed of information for WAPA operations, but the amount of information that can be transmitted as well.

Engineers like UGP Regional Maintenance Engineering Manager Todd Meyers, who navigates the organization’s data systems into the future, see even larger advancements right around the corner.

“When it comes to WAPA’s use of fiber optics, the main thing to know is that technology is changing,” Meyers said. “Over time, we’ve needed to upgrade our circuits as well as the ability to flow more data and capacity.”

WAPA microwave systems are efficient, but the technology can’t handle the sheer amount of data needed to transmit.

“Our customers continually want to see new technology adoptions that would increase efficiencies – meaning, a better bottom line,” Meyers added.

Since the adoption of fiber optic systems in the early 2000s, the need has grown for split-second data transfers for power transmission operations. This eventually would be captured in UGP’s Communications Modernization Master Plan, which envisioned the need for faster, larger communication requirements demanded by UGP operations and personnel.

Over time, Voice over Internet Protocol systems emerged, video adoption for operations support would multiply, increased demands for remote terminal unit circuit access points were instituted, as well as the need to increase more internet access points for WAPA’s workforce.

As part of the adoption plan, WAPA sought out partnerships with customers. This resulted in partnerships with Basin and East River Electric Cooperatives in North and South Dakota, respectively, each adopting the joint fiber systems in 2006. Since that time, approximately $60 million has been invested in WAPA’s fiber optics infrastructure throughout the UGP region.

“Leadership has always been supportive of our upgrade plans,” Meyers recalled. “The biggest hesitations for WAPA were the upfront capital costs and knowing that while it would take time to lay fiber optic lines, it would still be years until the system was fully online.”

However, WAPA leadership understood that our communications infrastructure was slowly aging and phasing out, and new parts were getting harder to find or didn’t exist anymore. So, upgrades and new technology adoption became inevitable.

New technologies on the horizon

UGP is the first region on the verge of adopting wavelength division multiplexing. Known simply as “WDM,” this technology will increase WAPA’s fiber optics system capabilities 10 fold, according to Meyers. WDM increases the bandwidth of existing fiber optic systems by allowing data streams to be transmitted along hundreds of different frequencies.

Simply put, WDM will take the speed of WAPA’s current fiber optics infrastructure and strap on a proverbial rocket engine, allowing for a massive increase in both speed and data transfers, ensuring communication systems evolve with the times.

Gage Bickler, a supervisory electronics engineer in UGP’s North Dakota maintenance office who is involved in the adoption of WDM, said fiber optics for WAPA means having the reliability to ensure the organization can support customers’ needs when they request it.

“With fiber optics installed on transmission lines and facilities, we’re essentially operating our own phone company,” Bickler pointed out. “Before fiber optics, our primary pathways were microwave, which are still used today, or we would just lease lines where we pay telephone companies to give us a communications path.”

“But now we have more capability than ever before, which allows us to have higher speeds and more data pushed through,” he added.

With an eye to the future, Bickler, who has worked to expand the fiber optics infrastructure since coming on board with WAPA in October 2019, said UGP’s focus on the expansion of its communications capabilities will lead to increased cost savings for WAPA and customers, increased cybersecurity adoption and an overall enhancement of power grid technology.

“Today, our fiber optics is used by neighboring utilities for electric utility operational traffic only, which we’ve implemented mutually beneficial communication sharing agreements with to do so,” Bickler said. “In exchange, this allows us to use their fiber optics and communication system per the agreement in areas where WAPA-owned communications infrastructure does not currently exist.”

Bickler continued, “I see more opportunities to collaborate with customers and partners down the road as well. When we think of concepts like smart grid technology, communications will be the key to making this a reality. And UGP plays an integral part in that space for these partners and customers.”

Note: The author is a Public Affairs Specialist

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Last modified on March 12th, 2024