The Tennessee Valley Authority plans to upgrade the communications backbone for one of America's biggest power transmission networks by installing 3,500 miles of new fiber optic lines across TVA's seven-state region over the next decade.
TVA directors agreed Thursday to spend $300 million or more over the next decade on a new fiber optics strategic initiative to upgrade the communications links between TVA power plants and the 155 local municipalities and cooperatives that distribute TVA power to nearly 9 million customers.
Mike Skaggs, executive vice president of operations for TVA, said parts of the existing network were built three decades ago and need to be updated for today's power service needs. TVA expects to spend $30 million to $50 million a year over the next 10 years to build out the new system.
"Our first fiber routes went into service in 1988 and much of that network is outdated," Skaggs told the TVA board during its quarterly meeting in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Skaggs said design work for the new fiber optic lines should begin this summer on areas most in need. TVA currently has about 3,500 miles of fiber optic lines along more than 16,000 miles of transmission lines, TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said.
But the capability and breadth of the fiber optic network needs to be improved to handle growing demand for data and communication interactions, especially as the federal utility moves to more distributed power generation from many smaller sources of generation and begins to price its products at different rates during different times of the day and season.
"We need to replace that network to meet the need for bandwidth and distribute new energy resources into the system," TVA President Bill Johnson said.
The new fiber optic lines will also give TVA "the potential to make fiber capacity available to help local communities in rural areas attract and retain jobs," Johnson said.
The TVA CEO said the utility doesn't plan to offer fiber optic services to individual homes or businesses or to immediately venture into telecommunications services. But working with TVA municipalities and cooperatives, TVA's fiber optic initiative could help rural communities get better telecom connections, Johnson said.
"When a business considers locating or expanding in the Valley, broadband connectivity is a basic operating requirement whether it's a big business or a small startup," he said. "But all across the Valley we hear from public officials, business leaders, local power companies that the communities continue to struggle to get this vital service."
The new fiber optic line could carry telecommunications for other uses, but Johnson said it is not his intent to compete with telephone, cable TV or other telecommunications companies with the new service.
In Chattanooga, EPB also launched its fiber optic network eight years ago to install smart grids and better power delivery. But the fiber capability also allowed EPB to offer video, internet and telephone services to its customers, which EPB has done to attract more than 90,000 local telecom customers so far and that number continues to grow.
Greg Williams, general manager of Appalachian Electric Cooperative and chairman of the Tennessee Valley Public Power Association, praised TVA's expansion of its fiber optic network and said it "could lead to one of the greatest economic impacts that we have ever seen.
"I don't believe we can fully comprehend today what the impact of this significant project can have not only on the electric grid, but also in helping to facilitate the expansion and enhancement of other things, economic development and of course, broadband to our customers," Williams told the TVA board. "Many would claim that broadband is now becoming or actually is an essential service. No different than the electric energy we provide."
Mark Cook, CEO of the Cumberland Electric Membership Corp., said TVA's investments in more fiber optic lines will "both expand and strengthen its partnerships with local power companies," many of which are now trying to add broadband telecommunication networks.
"This proposed fiber-optic network could be used for various other communication opportunities as part of an existing fiber optic networks already in place or planned," Cook said.
Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfree press.com or at 423-757-6340.
Updated May 11 at 9:22 p.m. with additional information.