For leaders at Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, the decision to add broadband services to their system is bringing dramatic changes to their operations practices and even altering their broader business model.

“When you install fiber, you have attachments on practically every pole across your system,” said Bruce Maurhoff, CVEC’s senior vice president and chief operating officer. “With those new attachments come different operating procedures, increased costs for system improvements and additional training needs for staff.”

Since launching its broadband operation, Firefly Fiber Broadband, in 2018, the Lovingston, Virginia-based distribution co-op has gradually shifted from its traditional electric service protocols to the new demands of an electric/communications cooperative.

“Putting broadband on your existing poles within the electric space warrants the support of enhanced training and performance standards,” said Maurhoff.

CVEC’s earliest internet ventures began more than a decade ago when the co-op volunteered as a test site for an internet-over-power-lines research project. When Virginia developed regulations designed to encourage broadband expansion, the co-op created Firefly with a goal of offering the system across its entire service territory. Since then, it has contracted with an investor-owned utility and a distribution co-op to offer Firefly in nearby underserved areas.

“On IOU poles, we are installing in the traditional communication space, but on our system and on lines owned by other electric co-ops, we’re building within the communication worker safety zone, just below the neutral,” said Maurhoff.

The National Electric Safety Code places the communication zone 40 inches below the neutral wire or equipment. Electric utilities operating and maintaining their own broadband network can deploy fiber closer to energized equipment. The rule helps preserve the use of shorter poles that many electric co-ops use in rural areas and reduces the need to replace existing poles with taller ones.

Such decisions save time and money but also require the system be serviced by qualified workers trained to manage the hazards posed by energized lines and compact workspaces.

“When our systems need to be repaired, electric line technicians need to know how to get fiber cable back up and make basic connections,” said Maurhoff, adding that his electric line crews now regularly work on broadband assets. “Fiber technicians working in that space need to have the training to work safely and recognize hazards that exceed their qualifications.”

By late 2022, CVEC’s Firefly subsidiary will have 37,000 potential subscribers on 4,000 miles of fiber deployed across parts of 14 Virginia counties. Increased state and federal funding sparked by heightened demand are credited with completing the buildout a full year ahead of schedule.

“Changes in training must be immediate as thousands of miles of fiber communications assets are being installed within the communications worker safety zone,” said Maurhoff.

“Our industry, particularly co-ops, must recognize the unique needs of these hybrid workers and tailor more training for their specific needs. We also need to require that the communications contractors hired to work in the space we control adjust their qualifications and training to meet our current and future standards.”