Pulse Broadband may be an unfamiliar name in the telecom industry. But the company has been quietly making moves that could have a substantial impact in the rural broadband market.
Pulse Broadband is working with four rural electrical cooperatives to deploy fiber-to-the-home infrastructure to support triple play services, including one—Ralls County Electric Cooperative–that already has service up and running in part of its planned service area.
Initially the Ralls County deployment only supported data services, but since then voice and video have been added, Pulse Broadband President and CEO Bill Shreffler told Telecompetitor in an interview.
When working with electrical cooperatives, “we design the network and manage construction,” said Shreffler. After construction is completed, Pulse Broadband is involved on an ongoing basis, handling billing and network management.
All four of the electrical cooperatives that Pulse is working with—including Ralls County—won some of the funding for their projects from the Rural Utilities Service as part of the broadband stimulus program.
But Shreffler said it isn’t necessary for an electric cooperative to win a stimulus award to make a project viable. Pulse Broadband is currently working with Co-Mo Electric Cooperative, a company that applied unsuccessfully for stimulus funding, to deploy a pilot network supporting broadband and voice services. As Telecompetitor previously reported, Co-Mo decided to move ahead with its pilot if 35% of customers in the area put down a deposit for one year of service. The company achieved that goal and is now moving forward. Based on the success of that pilot, the cooperative may move ahead with a broader deployment that would also include video services.
Pulse Broadband also is in discussion with another 25 companies about possible FTTH deployments, including several municipalities, as well as electric cooperatives, Shreffler said.
Although Pulse Broadband is only a few years old, its management team has extensive telecom and cable industry experience. Shreffler is a former cable company CEO, and the company’s chief strategic officer Dave Pangrac is credited with helping his former employer Time Warner Cable win an Emmy award for a fiber-related technology development.
Distributed tap architecture
Electric cooperatives have several advantages in the FTTH market. They have rights-of-way and pole infrastructure that can minimize the funding and time required for a broadband project. In addition, Shreffler said the cooperative ownership model in and of itself is an advantage.
“Members are paying themselves back for the investment,” Shreffler said.
Shreffler argued that the broadband equipment and architecture that Pulse Broadband is using also provide its clients with an edge. “We can build fiber-to-the-home and make it pay off to as low as eight homes per mile,” Shreffler said.
The company has a patent on what Shreffler called ‘distributed tap’ architecture. That architecture uses fiber from a headend to a four- or eight-port tap, Shreffler explained. From the tap, individual fibers are run to a network interface unit (NIU) on the side of each home. The architecture essentially uses a passive optical network (PON) approach but is less complex and less costly because fiber counts are lower, he said. A distributed tap approach also does not have the same distance limitations as the gigabit PON (GPON) approach used by traditional telcos, Shreffler said.
The Pulse Broadband approach differs from GPON in other ways as well. A key difference is that video is not delivered in IP format but instead uses quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM). By using QAM, Shreffler said Pulse Broadband is able to minimize programming costs for its clients. He noted that Ralls Electric Cooperative has joined the National Cable Television Cooperative, which pools the buying power of small cable companies–an option that has had a mixed history with telcos entering the video business.
Shreffler declined to speculate why the NCTC or cable content providers would be more open to service providers using QAM, but one possibility might be that content providers believe QAM provides a higher level of content protection.
Much of the equipment used in Pulse Broadband deployments, including the NIU, is standard. But some elements, including the tap, are manufactured specifically for Pulse Broadband, Shreffler said.
Shreffler added that Pulse Broadband’s approach can easily support open access for other network operators—a requirement for projects that received stimulus funding.
“We only use one third of the fiber,” said Shreffler. “Two thirds is left for other providers.”
The smart grid
Shreffler expects many of its electrical cooperative clients to become involved in smart grid deployments— and when that happens, he said the FTTH infrastructure will be a valuable asset.
“You will get a different answer what smart grid is depending who you talk to,” said Shreffler. “But one thing everyone agrees on is that fiber is a tremendous platform. Whatever flavor of smart grid is coming, fiber will be able to enable it.”
Rural electric cooperatives’ first move in the smart grid arena is likely to involve electronic meter reading, Shreffler said. He noted that some of these companies currently don’t have that capability. Instead members report their usage by completing a card and returning it to the utility—a practice that would be unthinkable in a large metro area.
Even in rural communities, some customers take advantage of the system, Shreffler noted. “Some members under-report in September when their kids are going back to school and true up after the holidays,” he said.
Project areas are unserved or underserved
Based on results from Ralls County Electric Cooperative, it would appear that Pulse Broadband and its clients are well positioned for success. The Ralls County project is on track to see a take rate above 60%, and Shreffler believes other electric cooperatives will see similar results—in large part because most of the projects target areas that currently have no broadband availability or have only relatively low-speed options.
In several cases the incumbent telco is one of the larger Tier 1 or Tier 2 operators such as Qwest (now part of Centurylink) or TDS Telecom. A few of the areas involved are served by smaller Tier 3 telcos, Shreffler said.