By NATHAN GREGORY
Starkville Electric Department officials unveiled and began work on a long-term infrastructure upgrade Wednesday which will use fiber optic cables to eventually implement public Wi-Fi access and automatic utility metering.
The 23,000-plus feet of fiber optic cables, which will be installed over the next several years, have 48 internal fibers inside them. They serve as the backbone for the Advanced Metering Infrastructure System being implemented by the city. AMI allows for more effective communication between system operators and consumers and allows for the department to monitor consumer utility usage.
Meridian-based McElroy Electric was contracted to install the fiber optic cables.
In the short term, the city-funded upgrade will allow for improved reliability with its electric and water services from an operational standpoint by tying the department’s substations together and allowing for direct communication between the main office and communication center, SED General Manager Terry Kemp said.
“It also creates an opportunity as we go into the automatic meter reading arena, which is really going to be a requirement as we have better customer service but also the rates that are going to be in place in the future. It’s not just to have this but it’s to meet a need and to keep our reliability good but also to be able to manage our cost,” Kemp said. “Over that period of time you’re talking about $6 million in electric and water that the city is putting into a project like this, but I think it’s well worth it. I think the key, too, is we’re going to manage this so that it does not have a real adverse effect on rates.”
SED Manager of Engineering and Operations Tommy Sullivan said the ground wire will take approximately six weeks to install, and he hopes to have the automated metering system installed early next year.
The fiber optic cable itself, he said, is a little more than $2 per foot.
“With this communication we won’t have to get in a truck and drive out to each resource and gather data that way. Data gathering will be streamlined to be much faster in real time and allow us to make decisions to minimize losses on the system and better utilize our existing resources,” he said. “We feel like the benefit through this (is) we’re putting in a system and trying to minimize costs today. We’ll be able to add higher level switching equipment to gain more bandwidth as we need it and invest more as the time comes.”
Kemp said the plan has been several years in the making and is excited to see the first steps being taken to transfer it from the drawing board to the city’s infrastructure.
“One of the main drivers we’re interested in is making sure it’s safe and reliable but also affordable. I think these technologies allow to do that. The other good thing as we go into the automatic meter reading arena is it really provides a better customer interface so the customers themselves can be more aware of their usage patterns when it’s used and that’s cost implications, so I think it’s a win-win for all of us,” he said. “We’re wanting to make sure it makes good business sense and it’s efficient but at the end of the day it provides good benefit and service to our customers.”
Mayor Parker Wiseman said the project offers promise for future opportunities.
“Having a fiber optic cable infrastructure is going to enable us to utilize technology for better customer service with our utilities and also to potentially provide some public access Wi-Fi. On the utility side, it will allow us to move forward ... converting our water and electric meters from the manual read meters we use now to an automated meter reading system, which has huge benefits,” Wiseman said. “It will allow us to have real time information related to our utility services which serves both the city and the customer. It will also lead to greater efficiencies as time and money spent on manual meter reading will be cut substantially by an automated meter reading program. The fiber optic cable infrastructure will also provide us a platform to begin offering Wi-Fi for public access in some areas throughout the city.”