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New Nashua firm brings broadband to NH, one utility pole at a time

By Staff | Apr 14, 2013

NASHUA – You may not think about utility poles much, but Waveguide, one of Nashua’s newest businesses, sure does.

The company, which has just moved into a former Postal Service building on Southwood Drive, installs fiber-optic lines for broadband networks on some of the state’s 22,000 poles, most notably the 750-mile Network New Hampshire Now project that is extending high-speed Internet to rural areas. As such, they install the part of the Internet that nobody thinks about – the cables that carry all that data – and mostly do it from pole to pole to pole.

“About 90 percent of it is aerial” rather than buried, said Rob Carmichael, CEO and founder of Waveguide, during a tour of the firm’s new home on Southwood Drive, off Exit 8. The parking area is filled with huge wooden reels holding up to 20,000 feet of fiber-optic cables each.

The cables are the highway part of the information superhighway, to use a dated but still useful metaphor. Each cable contains scores or hundreds of thinner-than-a-human hair glass fibers, and each of those fibers can pass along gigabytes of information – but only if somebody has strung them down your street, so you can connect.

New Hampshire, like all states, wants more of these networks because they are vital for business: Companies won’t move to a town or industrial park if fast Internet isn’t available.

But the cost of creating them is so high that private businesses only build them where lots of customers exist, which tends to bypass rural areas. Governments often are stepping in to provide incentives.

Network NH Now is one example. That public-private consortium oversees a
$65 million project to build a fiber network through some 200 communities swinging through Keene, up to the North Country and down through the Lakes Region. It uses $44.5 million in grants from the federal stimulus package and $21 million in matching funding from other sources.

Waveguide is teaming with New Hampshire Optical System, a Nashua-based fiber communications firm, to design and build this “middle-mile” network. Since the conception was first announced, a hookup to metro Boston has been announced, as well as a connection to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom that may cross the border to Montreal.

“The idea is to create a Montreal-to-Boston link. That’s how to sustain fiber in the rural areas,” Carmichael said.

The firm also is working to get customers, such as Internet providers, to hook up to the network, creating the all-important “last mile.”

“It’s challenging to sell a network that has not been built,” Carmichael said.

It’s challenging to build it, too.

Stringing cables sounds relatively straightforward, but think again.

As Carmichael explained it, placing fiber-optic cables between utility poles requires three major steps: Drilling and clamping supports onto the pole and stringing steel support cables between them; then placing the fiber-optic cables along the steel cables, leaving at least 10 percent extra in slack held in devices with names like “bullet” and “snowshoe,” so there’s room for future work; then finally lashing the fiber-
optic lines to the support cable so winds, falling tree limbs, errant kites and the like won’t pull them down.

This skips over perhaps the most complicated question: exactly where on the pole to connect them.

The average “telephone pole,” to use a common but long-outdated term, holds cables and wires from at least four sources: power lines on top, to be as far as possible from the ground; the telephone company at the bottom, at least 18 feet above roadways and 16 feet above sidewalks; and in between, cable TV lines and lines from other users, generally Internet providers and competitive telecom firms but sometimes municipal connections.

The details of placement are important. If cables are too close to the power lines, then insulated trucks and specially trained lineworkers are needed to install and maintain them, which is expensive. Often, adding a new line requires shifting around existing cables, which is also expensive.

In parts of New Hampshire, finding a spot on a pole has become litigious: Waveguide and New Hampshire Optical Systems are involved in two dockets at the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission, seeking regulators’ help about being given access to space on utility poles to establish the network.

“That was a surprise,” Carmichael said. “We weren’t expecting that.”

Waveguide moved from Chelmsford, Mass., to Nashua to consolidate operations and be closer to the Network New Hampshire Now program. It’s also closer to Maine, where the company has won a portion of a contract for a huge rural-broadband project known as the 3-Ring Binder.

They’ll feel right at home: The 3-Ring Binder involves more than 30,000 utility poles.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@Telegraph_DaveB).


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