MEC Announces Plan to Conduct Ultra High-Speed Fiber Broadband Pilot

Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative (MEC) officials are pleased to announce that the not-for-profit organization will be upgrading the telecommunications infrastructure it utilizes to provide electric distribution service, an enhancement that will also present an opportunity to offer ultrahigh-speed fiber broadband to its members, and their communities. The initial project focus will be the construction of an optical fiber cable network to interconnect its 27 substations and three district offices to increase communications system speed, capacity, and bandwidth capabilities for collecting and sharing power system information and data.

This fiber “backbone” ring is necessary to meet the increasing need for communicating with electricity distribution equipment including meters, downline devices, and substations on the cooperative’s system; monitoring substation operations and evaluating energy use; as well as improving overall reliability and meeting the future requirements of Smart Grid. Further benefits for the cooperative, in addition to speed and higher capacity, would be a reduction in internal costs of communication lines currently being leased and an increase in substation and grid security. The fiber ring will ensure the cooperative has the capacity and communications capabilities to meet its needs well into the future.

Optical fiber is a “future-proof” technology and represents the best of the best for communications and broadband offerings, using light - which is exponentially faster than wireless - to deliver data. Unlike wireless services, fiber mitigates frequent hardware change-outs and other associated costs as newer and faster wireless options become available.

At its September meeting, the MEC board of directors approved moving forward with the substation/district office connectivity plan as well as giving the go-ahead to pilot the extension of fiber to the home from the backbone ring.

“Technology and future needs require connecting our distribution substations via fiber optic cable and the board’s approval of this fiber deployment re-enforces our commitment to build and maintain an electrical system that reliably serves our members; and with this upgrade comes a significant opportunity – the ability to provide our members with the best in high-speed broadband,” states MEC Board Chairman David Jones, adding, “Our area indeed needs that service and accordingly, the board has approved a pilot project to evaluate the demand and resources needed to deliver a system-wide ‘Fiber-To-The-Home’ undertaking.”

This pilot project, which is largely contingent upon receiving grant funds from the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission (TRRC), would result in an exciting, new prospect for members who receive their electric service from the cooperative. In meeting its own requirements for ultrahigh-speed communications, MEC recognizes the need of its residential, commercial, and industrial members to also have access to high-speed, high-capacity broadband service.

“It would be inconceivable for us to deploy fiber that will pass right by the homes of many of our members and not make every effort to share that service with them, especially given that our members have waited patiently for access to the same high-quality internet service enjoyed by those in urban areas…they have waited long enough and they should never have to settle for less,” states John C. Lee, Jr., President & CEO of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative, adding, “That said, we are seeking funds available through the TRRC’s Last Mile Grant offering and are proposing to proceed with a pilot retail broadband project that would offer ultrahigh-speed internet service to our members utilizing fiber to the home.”

Lee continues, “Those we serve, our membership, have expressed their thoughts explicitly in encouraging their cooperative to bring much-needed high-quality broadband service to their communities. In fact, many fully expect us to do so. They support our efforts to move forward as do education officials, local and state government entities, civic groups, community leaders, and elected officials.”

"The forward-thinking of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative to offer fiber to the home is exactly what we were looking for when the Tobacco Commission decided to assist in providing broadband to the region," states Senator Frank Ruff (District 15), who represents most of MEC’s service territory and serves as vice chairman of the Tobacco Commission, adding, "Our citizens have been waiting far too long. I am delighted that Mecklenburg's proposal will provide true high-speed broadband service."

In his letter of support for MEC’s application for Tobacco Commission Grant Funds, Mecklenburg County Public Schools Division Superintendent Paul Nichols stated, “I believe there is no other entity that has the capacity to do this job, or the record of success and service to appropriately fulfill this need in our rural community. Please give your full support to this grant proposal as a critical foundation for the education of our students and the economic development of our county.”

Fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) is the installation and use of optical fiber from a middle mile or backbone cable directly to individual locations, such as residences, apartment buildings, and businesses to provide unprecedented high-speed internet access. The retail project would begin with the new deployment of 47 miles of optical fiber connecting MEC’s office in Gretna to the office in Chase City and along the way, connecting to seven of its substations as well. That initial deployment would pass MEC members in portions of Pittsylvania, Halifax, Charlotte, and Mecklenburg counties. Subsequently, the cooperative would connect Chase City to Ebony and then connect Ebony to the Emporia office and cross portions of Brunswick and Greensville counties. Collectively, these three projects will pass within 1,000 feet of 3,000 homes and businesses.

MEC’s efforts to offer fiber to the home were bolstered six months ago when Mr. Dwayne Long joined the MEC management team as vice president of information technology. Long came to MEC from Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Membership Corporation (BRMEMC), an electric distribution cooperative in Georgia that has offered its members retail internet access utilizing fiber to the home for over a decade. BRMEMC now provides internet service through fiber to more than 7,000 members, and Long brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in fiber technology to MEC. Long’s take on the pilot was summed up succinctly when he commented, “MEC is not breaking new ground here; electric distribution cooperatives all across the nation, and even here in the Commonwealth, are stepping up to offer this service in an effort to bridge the substantial technology divide between rural and urban areas. Make no mistake about it…fiber, and fiber only, will level the playing field.”

Lee goes on to explain that, through a joint-use agreement with Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation (MBC), MEC would not have to construct the entire line to connect its substations and three district offices. “We are very fortunate to have MBC in Southside Virginia. They continue to bring value to our region and without our partnership with them, even entertaining the thought of offering last mile fiber to the homes of our members would be incredulous,” Lee states, adding, “MBC already has large portions of “middle mile” optical fiber in place throughout the Cooperative’s service territory, and our agreement to exchange capacity with MBC will allow us to establish our backbone ring more economically.”

Upon the completion of a successful pilot, the fiber initiative will be undertaken for its entire system; MEC will seek federal, state, and local grants and financial assistance wherever available to be used for the retail deployment. Success in securing the funds will determine, in large part, how quickly the fiber service can be offered to additional areas.

Lee closes by saying, “Our area’s access to high-speed internet may not reach the same priority level as its access to reliable electricity, but nonetheless, internet service of this quality is a game-changer and difference-maker, particularly in education and economic development, as quality internet access becomes more critical to homes and businesses every day. Accordingly, the MEC board and staff have come to the conclusion that fiber deployment to the areas we serve has a number of common factors to the extension of electric service to MEC members in 1938 when no one would bring power to rural areas because of the sparse population and the inability to recover the investment. Those parallels lead us to ask ourselves the same question about fiber that our cooperative’s forefathers asked the community about electricity in 1938…if we don’t deploy fiber and offer ultrahigh-speed internet utilizing this technology…who will?”

Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative (MEC) is the not-for-profit energy provider to over 31,000 meters located in portions of the Virginia counties of Brunswick, Charlotte, Greensville, Halifax, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Pittsylvania, Southampton, and Sussex and the North Carolina counties of Granville, Person, Northampton, Vance and Warren. It is a Touchstone Energy Cooperative, headquartered in Chase City with district offices in Gretna, Emporia, and Chase City. MEC is an equal opportunity provider and employer. For more information, visit the Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative website.