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Utility to Go Gigabit in Oklahoma

Jason Meyers

Bolt Fiber Optic Services, a subsidiary of Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative, has joined the growing ranks of municipal and member-owned utilities vying to extend broadband services to underserved rural regions of the country. The company signaled its intent this week with the selection of Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) as infrastructure supplier and systems integrator for its fiber-to-the-home deployment.

In a three-year, three-phase buildout, the utility intends to cover 3,200 miles of rural northeastern Oklahoma, passing 32,000 homes and delivering speeds of up to 1 Gbit/s over the network, says Sheila Allgood, manager of Bolt Fiber Optic Services. Bolt will function as a separate entity from Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative, but "profit or loss will go back to the co-op," which is owned by its members. The deployment is being funded in part by a $90 million loan from the Rural Utilities Service.

Bolt plans to start offering commercial voice and data services in early 2015, Allgood says, and it intends to keep pricing for its triple-play bundle less than $100 per month for the entry-level 20 Mbit/s option. The utility subsidiary picked Alcatel-Lucent and its gigabit passive optical network (PON) platform because of the company's track record with other US utility fiber network buildouts.

"We have limited experience," she says. "When it comes to video and VoIP services and the massive deployment of rural fiber-to-the-home, we were in way over our head."

Michael Brayen, senior director of business development for the targeted verticals division of Alcatel-Lucent, says it will deploy its end-to-end PON infrastructure and act as systems integrator, providing network design, engineering and installation services, and third-party solutions for the headend, OSS/BSS, fiber mapping, and integration of Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC)'s Mediaroom IPTV middleware. The vendor's platform can run 160 Gbit/s from the optical network terminal back to the router, which should guarantee Bolt the speeds it is promising end customers.

"There's no such thing as future-proofing, but it does give Bolt a fighting chance to grow with demand," Brayen says.

Bolt is already promoting the service at community events and via social media marketing. Allgood says it is asking interested customers to pay the $100 installation fee upfront to help fund the buildout and gauge demand. So far, about 1,600 customers have done so. Some residents even launched their own grassroots efforts to distribute letters to their neighbors' mailboxes encouraging them to sign up -- which incited the wrath of the US Postal Service.

"That tells you that consumers are eager for the service, if they are promoting it themselves so it will get to them first," Allgood says.

— Jason Meyers, Contributing Editor, Light Reading

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