DZS, Irby Utilities Help First Electric Cooperative Offer Gigabit+ Broadband

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DZS, a global enabler in access networking infrastructure, service assurance and consumer experience software solutions, has announced the initial success of one of the largest rural broadband transformation projects currently underway in the U.S., now being deployed by First Electric Cooperative along with DZS strategic partner Irby Utilities (Irby), a Sonepar Company, in central and southeastern Arkansas.

In just nine months, First Electric’s Connect2First subsidiary has leveraged Irby’s broadband network planning and deployment experience along with DZS technology solutions to roll out over 2,500 miles of fiber—more than 35% of the total planned 7,000+ mile buildout—enabling the delivery of world-class gigabit+ services to thousands of subscribers today with the goal of ultimately reaching its entire membership of over 99,000 member accounts in 18 counties in central and southeastern Arkansas over the next four to six years.

This ambitious program, which leverages Rural Digital Opportunity Funds (RDOF) and potentially other government funding resources, will dramatically improve the quality of life and bring new economic opportunities to these underserved and in some parts unserved regions of the state.

“We are providing high-speed internet and phone service to the underserved, rural and highest need locations of our service area initially and have partnered with some of the leading internet contractors, like Irby Inc. and DZS, to build a system that will withstand generations of growth and create prosperity for our members and communities,” said First Electric President/CEO Don Crabbe. “We’re a utility and when times are the worst, we’re at our best. Whether it’s storm damage from a weather event or a virus, everybody must have electricity—and now also broadband, especially when families need to work and learn from home using the computer. We’ve been awarded $17.9 million via RDOF, and are pursuing multiple additional funding opportunities, such as the USDA’s ReConnect loans and grants, to help offset costs and increase the speed to market for our members.”

Besides delivering fiber to an area that has little to no broadband access, the $240 million Connect2First program will enable First Electric to connect all its substations to a fiber backbone, thus extending its operational network for SCADA. This large-scale effort is one of nine projects at different levels of completion in which DZS and Irby are presently partnering, which will collectively bring hyper-speed connectivity to approximately 300,000 subscribers, and which are approved to utilize over $100 million in RDOF funds and other federal, state, and local funding programs.

“We’ve gone from 0 to over 3,700 subscribers in 9 months of aggressive deployment, and the demand continues to grow,” said Randy Everett, CIO, First Electric and GM, Connect2First. “We have about a 21% initial take rate, and our feasibility studies anticipated a 30% to 33% take rate within 24 to 36 months. So, we’re confident that we’ll achieve—if not exceed—those numbers. Currently our fiber deployment is all GPON, but we’ll be adding XGS-PON in the coming months as we sign up not only residential subscribers but also small businesses and even large commercial companies. We’re also seeing significant interest from cellular providers looking for transport to and from their towers. Irby has been great to work with, as always. They’re able to address whatever issues and changes come up, and the fact that their main office is nearby is a big advantage. It’s the same with DZS, whose strong U.S.-based manufacturing logistics have ensured consistent and timely access to hardware. We’re ahead of schedule at the moment due to realizing efficiencies in Irby’s broadband design and hope we can stay on or near that pace going forward.”

First Electric’s service area spans over 3,600 square miles across central and southeast Arkansas, from the Ozark Mountains to the Mississippi River, and from metropolitan areas like the outskirts of Little Rock to rural and farming communities with just one or two meters per mile of line. Yet all of First Electric’s diverse 99,000-plus member accounts will ultimately be able to take advantage of the new Connect2First broadband network, which currently offers symmetrical speed residential service tiers of 200/500/1000 Mbps with the potential to deliver 10 Gbps services on demand in the future — all over the same fiber infrastructure and DZS Velocity and Helix systems now being rolled out. Irby is helping First Electric with planning and rapid deployment of multiple DZS technologies, including:

DZS Velocity Broadband Access solutions: The DZS Velocity V14 multi-terabit FTTx OLTs with GPON, XGS-PON, and Combo line cards form the backbone of First Electric’s multi-gigabit capable services deployment. DZS V14 OLTs offer an ultra-high capacity, standards-based, fiber-optimized aggregation platform suitable for deployment in even the most demanding physical environments.

DZS Helix Edge Access solutions: DZS ONTs and home gateways provide wired connectivity in the home.

“First Electric and Irby have shown remarkable foresight, determination and expertise to deliver world-class broadband technology and services to this large and extremely diverse area in such a short time—especially during COVID,” said Jay Hilbert, Chief Revenue Officer, DZS. “This project is already uplifting the quality of life and economic potential for the families and communities it touches and will ultimately transform how people live and work across central and southeast Arkansas. First Electric’s success exemplifies how other electric cooperatives can bring gigabit+ broadband to their members by taking advantage of the government stimulus funds and grants that are available right now, as well as the unequaled expertise and capability of DZS and Irby as partners in these transformative projects.”

The partnership between DZS, Irby and First Electric is one of many such deployments underway with rural electric co-operatives across the U.S. The RDOF program has thus far distributed over $1 billion to electric co-operative projects, with DZS and Irby involved with more than $100 million in awarded and approved funding. Billions more are still available for rural broadband projects from multiple sources.

The availability of diverse funding testifies to the ability of DZS and Irby, along with First Electric and other electric co-op partners, to collectively deliver broadband services, on time and on budget, that transform quality of life and economic prospects in some of America’s most underserved communities.


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