Engineering Alumni at Forefront of State’s Broadband Boom

Keith Hayward, Randall Abel, Blake Nations, Justin Smith lead expansions in north Mississippi

National OnDemand technician Dustin Ewing installs and tightens strand wire to anchor fiber as part of North East Mississippi Electric Power Association’s broadband fiber-to-the-home project. (Submitted photo)

As electric cooperatives deploy fiber to provide high-speed broadband internet service to unserved and underserved areas of rural Mississippi, several University of Mississippi engineering alumni are leading the charge in the northern part of the state.

Keith Hayward from Oxford (BSEE 87), Randall Abel from Oxford (BSEE 90), Blake Nations from Wesson (BSCE 19) and Justin Smith from Abbeville (BE 13) each play an important role in the North East Mississippi Electric Power Association’s broadband fiber-to-the-home project that will deliver high-speed internet and Internet Protocol phone service to all members living in five northern Mississippi counties.

Bart Robinson from Charleston (BSCE 96), chief operating officer for the City of Oxford, said the project will be extremely beneficial to some of the underserved areas of the community and the wider Lafayette County area.

“Broadband service has never been more important as demonstrated by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “Due to the pandemic, thousands of Oxford and Lafayette County citizens were forced to work from home, participate in virtual meetings through various platforms and participate in virtual learning through our local schools.

“Many of our community citizens did not have the capability to participate because (of) the lack of widely available broadband service.”

Communication towers are being deployed throughout North East’s service territory with each connected via a fiber transport ring that delivers backhaul communication at speeds of 10 gigabits per second. The ring is able to be changed to up to 100 gigabits per second for future growth.

“(North East) is using gigabit passive optical network technology as the architecture for its fiber optic network,” said Abel, manager of engineering and operations at North East and chief operations officer for the utility’s subsidiary, North East Fiber LLC (commercially known as NE SPARC). “Our system is being built from the ground up with the very latest Calix E7 network technology and Juniper core routers.”

The Calix E7 intelligence access system allows users to deploy the broadband they need over the technology available. Juniper routers are a series of ethernet routers and switches designed and manufactured by Juniper networks.

Fabian Lugo, another technician for National OnDemand, connects mainline fiber to a home to achieve a signal. (Submitted photo)

The overall project is estimated to cost between $45 million and $50 million for the entire network and is expected to take 36 months to complete. North East received a grant for $4.8 million as part of the Mississippi Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.

These grant dollars are specifically designated to be spent in some of the most underserved areas within North East’s territory, including those areas served by the Lafayette Springs and Enterprise substations.

“We are certainly excited about receiving this grant,” said Hayward, general manager and CEO at North East. “Ultimately, this makes it possible to add customers into our first construction phase instead of waiting for the second phase.”

North East has already finished construction of nearly 400 miles of fiber of which 200 miles are within the Mississippi CARES grant application area, Abel said.

“We are targeting completion of the remaining 200 miles of grant application fiber within the next three months,” he said.

NE SPARC already has 850 customers on line and expects to have 1,200 customers before the end of the year. At the end of the 36-month construction phase of the overall project, the company expects to have 7,500 customers on line.

North East serves around 23,000 locations in Lafayette County including about 10,000 in the city limits of Oxford. The utility company also serves some locations in Union, Pontotoc, Marshall and Benton counties.

Design for the multi-thousand-mile fiber-to-the-home project began in 2019. Construction began in March of this year and is scheduled for completion in 2022.

“Our fiber team, consisting (of) engineers, IT specialists, customer service reps and construction contractors, are deploying fiber throughout North East’s territory at speeds that would make the Ole Miss Rebel offense proud,” Abel said.

The fiber construction process uses a backhaul internet feed and a core (designed to work in the internet backbone) router at the company office in Oxford to provide high-speed broadband internet to all members.

“We are building a fiber-optic network designed to provide up to symmetrical gigabit (having the same upload and download) speeds to all 27,000 locations in (North East’s) service territory,” said Nations, a project director with Conexon, one of North East’s fiber suppliers.

Nations is in charge of contractor management, invoicing, quality control and permits, while Smith is manager of engineering at North East.

The Mississippi Public Utilities staff announced the awarding of $65 million in grant money to 15 electric cooperatives in July. Funds became available after the state Legislature passed Senate Bill 3046 – The Mississippi Electric Cooperatives Broadband COVID-19 Act – earlier this year. The money became available after the state was awarded federal CARES Act funding.

The electric cooperatives will match the grant money with $65 million to provide a total of $130 million for expanding broadband access across the state.