For more than a decade, much of DirectLink’s energy and resources have hinged on one massive project: the upgrading of its telecommunications infrastructure from the outdated copper wiring to fiber optic cable.
While perhaps conjuring to the layperson images of dietary roughage or clothing material, the term “fiber” in this case refers to cables made from woven strands of flexible glass, thinner than a human hair but capable of transmitting virtually unlimited amounts of data faster than coaxial cable, satellite, and even the most advanced 4G/5G wireless networks.
In the early 2000s, DirectLink made the decision to provide fiber optic connections directly to the homes of every one of its members in its Canby and Mt. Angel service area, which covers 100 square miles, and has spent the past 15 years making good on that promise.
Given that the project has taken place, quite literally, under the surface, the rollout has likely flown under the radar for many consumers — especially those who haven’t yet seen the upgrades reach their neighborhoods.
But it’s hard to overstate the enormity of the task facing DirectLink engineers and its contract partners in laying miles of underground fiber optic cables to every one of its members’ homes across an area roughly the size of Grenada.
The conditions can be particularly challenging in the rural communities surrounding Canby and Mt. Angel, where the homes can be set back hundreds of feet or more from the road and beset by hills, rivers and creeks, large trees, rock and other natural obstacles.
Eric Kehler, director of plant operations for DirectLink, explains that the company and its local contract partners address these complications using hydraulic bore machines and horizontal directional drills, which can drill hundreds of feet and be controlled by wireless and GPS technology.
“It basically bores a hole underground, with one entry and exit point at the end, and then it grabs conduit and pulls it all the way through,” Kehler says. “Our whole goal is that, once we leave the property, you never knew we were there, and this technology allows us to do just that.”
Despite the challenges, DirectLink is certain the investment will be worth it, both for consumers and the service provider itself.
Unlike legacy networks, including copper and coaxial cables, fiber optics are immune to sources of interference and signal degradation — and it’s the only known technology capable of handling the explosive and growing demand for broadband speeds, bandwidth and connectivity.
“I think that, for the company, it’s all about delivering the best service we possibly can to our members,” Kehler says. “All day every day, that’s the main focus of the employees of DirectLink: to provide the best service and keep that going for years to come.”
A dedicated, direct-to-home connection provides cleaner service, one that will not be affected by neighborhood congestion the way a shared network might be. Having a fiber-optic connection can also increase a home’s value by as much as 5%, DirectLink says.
But Kehler believes the biggest benefit of the project is also its most obvious — faster speeds and higher bandwidths — something that the pandemic brought into sharp relief.
“For me personally, it’s the satisfaction of the end result,” he says. “With fiber, there are no limits to what you can do, so we’re truly giving members that unlimited potential of what they would like to do with the bandwidth available to them. It has literally changed lives with things like telemedicine, working from home and being able to run their small businesses from home.”
Kehler says he’s received numerous emails and even letters from customers appreciative of the company’s efforts, while the construction crews have received even more tangible gestures.
“There was one family that was so ecstatic, they actually made brownies and brought them out to the crew,” Kehler says with a laugh. “People are very appreciative.”
Thanks to DirectLink’s efforts, many of its members are ahead of the curve in access to high-speed internet.
Nationwide, less than half of homes (43%) have access to fiber, compared with the more than 83% of members within DirectLink’s Canby 84-square-mile service area that had been converted to fiber by the end of last year, along with the 26% in the 16 square miles of Mt. Angel. Its goal is to have 100% of customers connected by 2026.
The company was lauded for its efforts in 2015, when the Fiber to the Home (FTTH) Council Americas awarded DirectLink the third Annual National “Gimme Fiber Day.”
“I see fiber taking us way into the future,” Kehler says. “That something so small can carry all this data, it’s really just amazing. I still think it’s magic somewhere that makes everything work, but I’m very pleased with the outcome of what fiber can provide to us today.”
More information about the fiber rollout, along with answers to frequently asked questions and a map of ongoing and planned projects, is available online at www.directlink.coop/internet/fiber.
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