Project to bring down ‘Digital Divide’ in Portales

Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor

Yucca Telecom of Portales announced earlier this week that the company is preparing to launch an $11.3 million project in the next 30 days to install a fiber optic network throughout Portales. The project is expected to take about a year.

“We’re investing in our community, our schools and our businesses,” said Yucca Telecom General Manager Scott Arnold. “We’ve been here a long time and we’re not going anywhere.”

Yucca Telecom is a for-profit business arm of Roosevelt County Rural Telephone Cooperative. It provides Internet services and wireless telephone sales and service as a Plateau Cellular dealer.

“This is the biggest (one time) investment in co-op history,” said Arnold. “It’s a pretty big deal.”

Putting that in perspective, he pointed out that the total assets of RCRTC are about $18 million.

The project is made possible by a Cost of Money Loan from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Broadband program, which was set up to bridge what’s known as the “Digital Divide” and bring high-speed Internet service to rural areas throughout the country by 2007. A total of $2.1 billion is available through various portions of the program nationwide.

Arnold says work could possibly begin before the end of October with a pre-construction meeting set for Oct. 18 with about 20 stakeholders in the community including other utility companies, the city and Roosevelt County. That meeting is planned to fully inform those entities of the scope and planning of the work and avoid or lessen service interruptions because of the project. It will also lay out customer service protocols for Yucca Telecom’s crews and contractors with respect to other utilities.

“We’ll be digging down alleys, across roads and through people’s yards,” said Arnold.

“But digging nicely,” added Yucca Telecom Assistant General Manager Cecile Archibeque.

Arnold explained that the work would be done by a contractor selected specifically for their expertise in boring work for utilities. That means digging up yards and streets shouldn’t be necessary, though access holes from point-to-point will be dug. Arnold estimates that 90 percent of the lines will be bored.

According to Arnold and Archibeque the city will be divided into 10 sections with work progressing from one area to the next over a year. The project will likely begin at Yucca Telecom’s office at Second Street and Avenue A and proceed out Third Street to initially connect to another facility the company has east of the high school.

The project seeks to make a high-speed fiber optic connection to the Internet available to every household and business in town. That connection will immediately be used by Yucca Telecom’s customers for high-speed surfing on the Internet, with Arnold expecting the first customers on the system within 30 days. The technology can provide a number of future benefits including broadband, voice and data as well as video and alarm services.

Advantages of fiber optics, according to Arnold, start with the simple fact that a strand of glass does not rot or deteriorate like copper wiring when placed underground and it isn’t subject to pest problems like rodents and insects gnawing the insulation. It also makes for a great deal more speed on a fiber optic network and can carry an unlimited amount of information.

“Fiberglass (networks) work through light,” said Arnold. “There is no limit known for the amount of data a single strand can carry.”

Right now Yucca Telecom’s fastest speed available to residents is a 640K wireless connection. With the fiber optics in place that speed will increase to 4 megabytes per second or just over four times faster.

Archibeque is excited about the opportunities fiber optics will provide the community and says her company is still working on the exact packages that will be offered to their customers. She says that there will be no cost to install the lines and existing Yucca Telecom customers should see about the same rates as they are currently paying. She says rates might be slightly higher or lower depending on what goes into the package of service.

“We’re out front on fiber,” said Archibeque. I do believe when we finish this project we’ll be the first community in the state, town-wide, to have this. That’s pretty exciting. I think the community will be pretty excited too, once awareness of what it will do is out there.”

Kim Huffman, Executive Director of the Community Development Association in Portales agrees with Archibeque about the value of the network to the town.
“What it will do, is set us apart from other communities.” said Huffman. “We bank heavily on ENMU and technology smart people (in attracting development), if we had the technology available throughout the town it would really put us ahead.”

Huffman notes things such as commodity processors and other agriculture related businesses being able to market more effectively using fiber optic capabilities, to the educational and quality of life advantages it would provide.

“Fiber optics is just a part of the whole package that helps bring people and business into the area,” said Huffman.
Roosevelt General Hospital as well as Eastern New Mexico University and Portales High School all have some fiber optic and high speed network capabilities in place already but they are still expected to benefit from the increased band-width available from the new network.

Arnold says Yucca Telecom has already brought some fiber optic lines to ENMU and hopes to have agreements soon to hopefully provide service to all the university’s buildings. He says the benefits for ENMU and other schools will be in distance learning and IP networks.

Edwin Collins Information Technology Director at RGH says the hospital already utilizes fiber optics but he anticipates using the additional service capabilities to bring in voice and data teleconferencing.

“We’re planning to do more on the Web in teleconferencing and classes,” said Collins. “If we get fast enough service for it, we’re also going to host our own Web site. Once we get fiber in here we’ll be able to access a lot more on the Internet.”

“It’s the latest and greatest technology,” said Arnold. “We want to be the pioneers.”