By Kelly Moore
With fiber optic cable expected to replace copper wire in the early part of this century, demand for highly specialized crews capable of providing fast, dependable installation is predicted to rise.
As communities throughout the U.S. look to improve their broadband capabilities, both urban and rural projects are appearing—giving contractors such as Michels Corp., based in Brownsville, Wis., the opportunity to demonstrate their proficiency.
“My overall impression of the market is that it’s on an upswing,” said Eric Graning, project manager for Michels. Graning has been with the company for more than six years and manages up to 50 crew members on any given project. “We’re seeing more bid opportunities coming today than in the past few years. With the demand for faster Internet and the need for more broadband, the fiber industry will be strong in the future.”
Founded as a gas pipeline construction company in 1959, Michels was among the first U.S. contractors involved in the construction of fiber optic cable systems. Today, the company develops exclusive methods and builds customized equipment, such as rail-mounted cable plows, designed especially for fiber optic cable installation. With expertise in several aspects of communications—including network design, installation and maintenance—Michels continues to be one of the largest design and outside plant construction telecommunication contractors in the U.S.
Nearly 8,000 Dwellings Connected by 2017
Asked to install some of the first-phase cable in the Brainerd, Minn., area’s $50 million fiber optic expansion, Michels placed 220 miles of fiber optic cable in utility-crowded ditches along shoulderless blacktop roads. The installation consisted of a 100-mile mainline and an additional 120 miles of service to nearly 1,300 homes and businesses along the mainline.
The project was part of a larger fiber optics expansion headed by Consolidated Telecommunications Co. (CTC), also of Brainerd. According to CTC, the project’s goals are to connect more than 7,900 rural homes and businesses with over 1,500 miles of fiber optic cable by 2017. Project financing is from a $49.6 million loan by United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development, authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill.
The bill, praised by many in the telecommunications industry, encouraged financing for areas of the country without widespread access to broadband service.
Michels’ project, supervised by Graning, was designed in the emerging fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) configuration. FTTH brings fiber optic cable directly to the home or business, whereas similar configurations—such as fiber-to-the-node (FTTN)—brings fiber optics to a community, connecting homes and businesses to the mainline with conventional copper cable. FTTN setups greatly limit both speed and bandwidth for the end user.
Michels’ crews installed the 100-mile fiber optic mainline cable, which ranged from 12- to 288-count inside 1.5-inch conduit, with plowing and directional drilling techniques. Project specs required the cable be buried at least 36 inches below the surface. On a typical day, the crew installed 5,000 feet of cable and conduit.
At the same time, Michels kept crews and equipment busy maintaining hundreds of miles of fiber optic, telephone and cable TV (CATV) lines for multiple customers.
Traction and Stability Drive Equipment Choice
To complete the work in Brainerd, the crews relied on a Vermeer RTX1250 utility tractor with rubber quad-track system equipped with a cable plow. The tractor was equipped with a cable reel tender, installed on a 2.5-inch diameter reel shaft, capable of supporting up to 5,000 pounds.
The 13,620-pound, 120-horsepower RTX1250, when equipped with its patent-pending quad-track system, offers very low ground pressure at 5 psi—allowing operators to float the equipment over sensitive ground materials such as those found along the Brainerd project.
Crews worked in sugar sand conditions, prioritizing the need for traction from Michels’ equipment. Without it, an extra piece of equipment would have been required to supply pulling power to the job. In addition, the quad tracks provided needed protection for the shoulderless blacktop, where one side of the tractor was nearly always present throughout the installation.
“We first had the machine brought to the project to test it in the tough environment,” said Graning, who operated his first Vermeer unit in 1998. “After seeing it was a great fit for this and similar projects, we decided to purchase one.”
Designed to lend operators greater stability, especially in side-hill situations, the RTX1250 was instrumental on the Brainerd project, where roadside conditions were less than desirable. Because the quad-track system maintained constant four-point contact with the ground, operators worked with relatively no breakover point, providing much needed steadiness.
“The RTX1250 was the ideal machine for our mainline crew because of the rubber quad tracks,” Graning said. “We needed the versatility it offered because of the blacktop roads with no shoulder and the ditches where several existing utilities had already been installed.”
According to Graning, the biggest project challenge was the overload of existing utilities in the ditches where crews were charged with installing the mainline cable. To overcome the challenge, Graning employed extra men for locating the existing utilities with potholing techniques. The heavily wooded area also dictated a need for maneuverability to protect trees along the route.
Into the Global Marketplace
The race for widespread fiber optic infrastructure is on, as countries such as China and Japan make installation of the super-fast data expressway a part of their economic strategy. With projects such as the Brainerd expansion taking place across the country, the U.S. appears to be gaining speed.
Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar likened the Brainerd area’s fiber optic expansion to the construction of American roadways: “In the 19th and 20th centuries, railroads and highways helped our farms and forests send their goods to market. Today, broadband will help us send our ideas into the global marketplace.”
About the author: Kelly Moore is a technical writer for Two Rivers Marketing in Des Moines, Iowa.