Residents and businesses in rural regions between Reno and Las Vegas recently learned that their odds at obtaining high-quality Internet access just went through the roof. A collaboration between county owned Churchill County Communications (CC Communications), the Valley Communications Association of Pahrump (VCA), and Switch technology company to deploy a middle mile fiber-optic backbone will open up a range of possibilities for rural communities along the U.S. Highway 95. The route runs north and south along Nevada's far west, passing through a number of small towns that are welcoming the new alliance.
A Backbone Running North And South
For the past 11 months, CC Communications and the VCA have been working to deploy more than 450 miles of fiber from north to south. Switch provided funding for the deployment to link its data centers in Las Vegas and the Tahoe-Reno area and will also provide funding for expansion to some rural communities. VCA will service the network in the south and Churchill will care for the north section.
Along the backbone, CC Communications and VCA will connect local communities. Beatty, in southern Nevada, plans to be the first use the new infrastructure and to deploy fiber in the community. The unincorporated community is home to about 1,000 people and is about 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas. According to Valley Electric Association, the rural electric cooperative that owns and operates VCA, they have plans to expand fiber throughout the Beatty community.
“With that backbone, you can link up any town anywhere near it,” said Michael Hengel, spokesman for the Valley Electric Association. “The first all-fiber community in Nevada will be Beatty.”
Like other rural electric utilities that have chosen to offer broadband, Valley Electric will be using its existing fiber resources initially installed for managing electric distribution for customer connectivity. The cooperative is currently offering fixed wireless Internet access with plans to offer Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH).
"You have to have a driver," Husted said. "For us, it was the optic fiber we installed to manage our vast electrical system. Our No. 1 priority is to connect the members we serve in western Nevada. Beyond that, we want to make this great asset available to the other rural areas of the state."
Communities in both the northern and southern areas along the new backbone hope and anticipate it will boost economic development. Businesses seek out locations with Internet network infrastructure that can offer the kind of capacity they need for daily operations, but fiber-optic networks enable other improvements that businesses consider when looking for new digs.
“Camera images, roadway sensors and weather monitoring data will be able to freely flow to and from users in rural settings to assist with transportation issues related to traffic incidents, infrastructure condition, special event management, weather hazards and security issues,” said Tina Quigley, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission.
There is also the possibility that the network will enable an air corridor between Las Vegas and Reno where drones will be able to fly in to, out of, and between airports and other Nevada facilities. The area is being considered as a testing ground for technologies such as autonomous vehicles.
CC Communications: Has The Knowledge
We spoke with the General Manager of CC Communications, Mark Feest, back in June 2016 about the network for episode 204 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. He described how the community had started with a telegraph wire in 1889 and now people in the western county have some of the best connectivity in the state. In addition to gigabit (1,000 Megabits per second) Internet access, homes and businesses in the rural county can obtain digital TV, voice, home automation, and security services. CC Communications also offers PC repair.
Mark also mentioned that CC Communications had started on the project and how a large Tahoe-Reno industrial park will now have the kind of connectivity tenants need to function. Switch has a data center in the park and, by connecting to Switch’s network there, CC Communications’ customers will have a network that is more redundant and therefore more reliable.
In the northern areas served by the project, CC Communications will first connect additional lines to school district facilities, county buildings, and businesses. Homes that aren’t already connected to fiber through CC Communications will come next.
Schools in the communities along the route - the U.S. Highway 95 corridor - struggle to serve their students when they depend on old connections. Some of the schools are isolated and would like to take advantage of remote teaching opportunities through Skype, but their slow connections don’t have the capacity for video applications.
Nye County students in the process of standardized tests administered online must start over when the school’s Internet connection fails. When schools have inadequate connectivity, students loose educational opportunities as well. In the small mining town of Gabb, there are only 32 students in the entire school:
"As it stands, we can't even run our online learning program because the Internet speed is so slow," [the school’s teacher Tom] Lyman said. "We can't download a file from YouTube. It sometimes takes two to three minutes for a computer to change from one screen to the next. Other times, it knocks the kids plum out of the program."
CC Communications has worked with other rural schools to improve connectivity. Mineral County School District recently obtained a state grant with the utility’s help. The school used the funds for fiber connections so it could receive gigabit connectivity and a fixed wireless complement. With the new extensive fiber network, more local schools along the route will be able to reproduce Mineral County’s approach.
"The most difficult challenge in rural areas is obtaining the backhaul necessary to deploy robust fiber fed infrastructure. Without that connection back to the Internet Gateway, the potential of fiber to the home cannot be achieved," said Mark Feest, CEO of CC Communications. "This partnership is key to enabling providers to eliminate the digital divide in much of rural Nevada."
Image of the Beatty public library by Finetooth (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0