WAPA hosted its final customer meeting on fiber optics partnership assessment Aug. 29 at its Lakewood, Colorado, Headquarters. Sixty-two customers attended the meeting to learn more about WAPA’s current fiber-sharing agreements and potential sharing opportunities. WAPA’s role in the American Broadband Initiative, one of the drivers behind the assessment, was also part of the discussions.
The ABI directs WAPA and Southwestern Power Administration to complete a feasibility assessment by December on leasing “dark fiber,” referring to power transmission system optical fiber that is not in service.
Reasons to assess
The goal of the ABI is to improve high-speed internet access for rural parts of the country. WAPA’s need for robust transmission system communications to deliver reliable, resilient and secure power intersects with that goal. Fiber is crucial for grid reliability and resilience. Without resilient communications, WAPA’s ability to operate efficiently decreases dramatically.
WAPA has installed more than 5,000 miles of optical ground wire, or OPGW, across its territory over the past 20 years, basing the buildout primarily on planned maintenance and replacements to minimize cost. OPGW is fiber cable on the transmission line. The network interconnects with other entities’ fiber optic networks, and WAPA has sought partnerships with some of those entities to enhance grid resilience.
As the grid brings in more and more operational data every year, fiber supports WAPA’s ever-increasing need for bandwidth. Months before the ABI, WAPA was considering a feasibility assessment to help communicate its priorities and needs and establish best practices for fiber partnerships going forward. The assessment also provides impetus to determine how WAPA can address partnership requests in a more efficient, standardized way.
Key areas of focus for the initiative include:
- Interest and opportunities for new partnerships.
- Customers’ priorities and goals for fiber partnerships.
- Challenges and concerns with new partnerships.
- Gaps in feasibility assessment elements.
Transparency is equally important to the prudent business practices that guide WAPA’s operations. When WAPA launched the Fiber Optic Partnerships Assessment in April, the organization built ample opportunity into the process for customers to share their interests and concerns.
The August customer meeting was the culmination of an extensive public outreach process that ran through the summer and included meetings across WAPA’s territory. Its format was similar to the regional meetings, except that it included a review of the insights and feedback gathered from the previous meetings.
Participants were encouraged to provide input on four key areas of focus shaped by past discussions. Customers were also able to submit comments electronically until Sept. 15.
Discussion reveals issues
As the final meeting in a series, the event served primarily as a recap of discussions at the regional level. However, attendees who were already familiar with the issues still found the discussions valuable.
“I particularly appreciated the discussion of the legal issues, as I had been asking about that at the prior meetings,” said Mid-West Electric Consumers Association Executive Director Bill Drummond, who had attended three regional meetings.
Some customers gained a new appreciation for the extent of WAPA’s fiber network and existing partnership agreements. Ted Miller, assistant director of Operations for Redding Electric Utility, said, “WAPA creates a win-win partnership, which can be a very economical approach to encourage competition.”
The northern California utility was among several customers serving rural and more remote areas that were exploring partnership opportunities to improve broadband coverage to their communities. Representatives from Trinity Public Utility District in California and the City of Farmington, New Mexico, shared the view that better internet connectivity could improve economic opportunities in rural areas, and that a fiber-sharing agreement with WAPA might provide the pathway.
Concerns about costs—how future partnerships might affect rates, negatively or positively—ran parallel to interest in fiber-sharing agreements. Attendees wanted to know how costs for installation, maintenance and repairs would affect rates and whether or not partnerships might produce revenue. Electronics Engineer Kevin Hogg, a member of the fiber assessment team who spoke at the event, emphasized that WAPA maintains the “beneficiary pays” principle in its existing and future partnerships.
Security was another issue that presented pros and cons; although some attendees expressed concern about potential issues related to cybersecurity and physical security issues, others noted that fiber partnerships could increase communication redundancy.
Above all, attendees were reassured that WAPA’s top priority would continue to be power delivery. Administrator and CEO Mark A. Gabriel and other speakers repeatedly stated that WAPA was not looking to get into the telecommunications business.
Upper Missouri Power Cooperative General Manager Claire Vigesaa attended the meeting to show support for WAPA’s core mission. “We would like them to keep that focus,” he said. “WAPA staff reaffirmed this as well.”
The assessment will be finalized and submitted to the Department of Energy in December. Discussion on potential next steps will begin in Spring 2020.
WAPA thanks everyone who provided input during the public outreach phase of the Fiber Optics Partnership Feasibility Assessment. Customer participation has been indispensable in helping WAPA develop its own best practices and understanding the concerns and issues of its customers.
Note: Storie is a technical writer who works under the Wyandotte Services contract.