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East Texas broadband plan rolls on despite delays

By Jimmy Isaac
Nov. 6, 2011 at 10 p.m.

Despite delays, an East Texas telecommunications provider is working to extend broadband Internet infrastructure through portions of the region in advance of a federal deadline.

Peoples Telephone Cooperative in Quitman learned in August 2010 that it would receive stimulus funding to build a fiber optic network to serve medical, educational and governmental agencies in 13 East Texas counties, including Camp, Smith, Titus, Van Zandt and Wood.

It will be a "middle-mile" network, meaning Peoples is connecting high-speed Internet links to schools, hospitals and agencies in the 13 counties. Peoples will be able to build and sell "end-use" infrastructure to residential or commercial customers.

"It has to be economically self-sustaining, so we have to hook up enough businesses and institutions to make this thing pay for itself, "co-op Assistant General Manager Steven Steele said.

Peoples has three years to complete the $40 million infrastructure plan or risk forfeiting $26 million in federal funding.

"I just think it is so critical for people in rural areas to have this service," Emory Mayor Cay House said.

This past week, Steele updated executive committee members of the East Texas Council of Governments in Kilgore about progress on the grant. ETCOG has actively pursued broadband infrastructure for the region in the past four years.

While a bulk of Northeast Texas is not part of the plan, recent news from Washington suggests more rural communities will see broadband infrastructure improvements through federal funding.

Peoples has provided telecommunications services in East Texas for more than 50 years and has offered wireless service in Wood and Rains counties since 1992. It is leveraging its assets to build and operate the broadband network, and is laying more than 600 miles of fiber optic cable in the region.

Once complete, East Texas' newest broadband network will connect with the Texas Lone Star Network, a group of 39 rural telecommunications carriers that also is connected to many of the state's educational institutions and medical facilities.

Steele said Peoples plans to offer GigE, an interface standard that allows high-speed transmission of video.

"We are trying to make an economical GigE offering because we feel that's where the rest of the world is moving to," he said. "We will have (10 gigabit ethernet port) available, but that's going to be a very expensive proposition."

Peoples' quest slowed this spring and summer after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, shutting down manufacturing operations there that produced 35 percent of the world's optical fiber supply. As the world's largest telecommunications companies placed greater orders with U.S. companies, smaller companies and co-ops such as Peoples found it difficult to secure optical fiber.

"When ATT, CenturyTel and Verizon go to a supplier that I'm using, I very seldom get a phone call back, so you can imagine what it has done to my fiber supply. We have been slowed almost to a complete stop several times as far," Steele told members of the East Texas Council of Governments' Executive Committee on Thursday.

In response, Peoples crews began installing conduit in anticipation of optical fiber, he said. Once fiber is secured, crews can more quickly insert it into the conduit.

"We just got a couple of good shipments of fiber in, so we're putting fiber in as we speak."

Steele said Peoples is substantially done with first-phase work and building into phases II and III.

Conduit connecting Canton and Lindale were inserted with fiber this past week, while conduit installation is taking place between Wills Point and Quinlan. That work should conclude within two months.

Peoples also has begun work on Phase II - building broadband infrastructure between Mount Vernon and Mount Pleasant to ultimately connect to Northeast Texas Community College.

A second federal stimulus grant in 2009 to the Texas A&M University System also improves broadband infrastructure in a rural area.

As of Thursday, Peoples was receiving links from Dallas to its regional hub, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler. From there, Texas A&M will connect to its satellite campus in Commerce using the grant, Steele said.

"That's why we're trying so hard to get Northeast Texas Community College connected to that," he said.

Peoples has found a delay of a different sort in Canton. As the co-op builds conduit for optical fiber south of Interstate 20 on Texas 19, it will encounter Canton's First Monday Trades Days. The more than 100-acre park has vendors on one side of Texas 19 and parking on the other side of the road, forcing Peoples to complete an environmental impact study before construction.

On Oct. 27, Federal Communications Commission regulators agreed to change an $8 billion national communications subsidy program to put more emphasis on providing high-speed Internet access to rural areas.

According to Reuters news agency, the plan shifts about $4.5 billion annually to providing broadband in areas considered rural or costly to serve. It would phase out funding for landline phone service over a period of several years.

"We are taking a system designed for the Alexander Graham bell era of rotary telephones and modernizing it for the era of Steve Jobs and the Internet future he imagined," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said.



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