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Desert Companion

Speedy Beatty

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Speedy Beatty
Photography by Anthony Mair

A new fiberoptic system that will give this tiny town the fastest internet in the state is just the latest innovation from a unique rural energy co-op

Best known as a fueling station on the way to Death Valley, Beatty is a really small place. Like, before you know you’re rolling into town, you’re rolling out of town. Hemmed in by mountains, the community of 3,000, about 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is not much more than a few motels and a few watering holes, but residents are a proud bunch who like that they’ve gotten away from the hustle of bigger cities.

The vibe is strongest at the Happy Burro Chili & Beer, which is full of delicious chili and carousing regulars. The restaurant’s owner, Fred Summers, is holding court with some friends — two chili cooks and a chili judge —and Eddy Huffman, a newcomer to town, speaks for them all about the town’s appeal. “I’m old,” he says, “and I like old stuff.”

But Beatty’s about to get an infusion of 21st-century technology, courtesy of a blazing fiberoptic system that will enable internet speeds up to 400 times faster than what rural residents have dealt with — and probably a hell of a lot faster than your internet in Las Vegas, too. Beatty will be the first town in Nevada to be entirely connected with fiberoptic lines, hair-sized strands of glass that can transmit light at breathtaking speeds. (While fiberoptic lines are available elsewhere in the state, most customers in Nevada rely on either copper phone lines, coaxial cable lines, or wireless antennas.)

Support comes from

The fiber system, installed by a subsidiary of Valley Electric Association, not only heralds a more connected future for Nevada’s rural communities, it also calls back to the past of the region itself. VEA was begun 52 years ago “by farmers, ranchers, people in rural areas sitting around the kitchen table saying, ‘How are we gonna get electricity here?’” says Thomas Husted, the co-op’s CEO. Nevada Power wouldn’t service the area. The only power came from personal generators. There were just a few hundred people living here. There was no school — kids were bused to Shoshone, California, 27 miles away.

Other rural communities, such as Dyer and Amargosa, were in the same boat. With a push from the federal Rural Electrification Administration, which provided loans to build electrical-distribution systems in underserved parts of the country, those communities came together to form the Valley Electric Association. What began as a way to bring “very basic essentials to the folks in this area,” such as lights and pumping water, has grown into a co-op that services 40,000 members across nearly 7,000 square miles — an area larger than Connecticut.

But if you think this is a small-time operation, think again. Husted, VEA’s CEO, is quick to boast that the utility “has a legacy of being one of the most sophisticated, technologically advanced utilities in the United States.” It sounds like hyperbole until you visit the utility’s control room at its Pahrump headquarters, in a building where doors aren’t marked and where sensitive equipment is placed in rooms surrounded on six sides by concrete. A screen in a corridor shows a map of real-time cyber attacks occurring in the United States. It looks like a scene out of WarGames: The U.S. mainline is bombarded by dozens of attacks every second. VEA gets hit with about 8,000 a day — hackers probing for weakness anywhere along the national energy grid. (For security reasons, the VEA declined to address how it thwarts these attacks.)

In the control room, technicians calmly monitor a wall filled with 20 huge flat screens, from banks of more than half-a-dozen monitors that curve around. If there are any issues, they can zoom down to see a single power line serving one home anywhere on their network.

VEA began putting fiberoptics on its energy transmission lines around 2007, to improve its internal communications. Those lines reduced the utility’s outage time by 90 percent by speeding up the ability to respond to problems on the system.

At the time, the company didn’t want to get into the communications business. But in the intervening years — thanks to the explosive growth of broadband-connected mobile devices — it realized that high-speed communications is today’s version of electricity: No longer a luxury, but an absolute requirement for participating in local, national, and global economies and societies.

VEA formed Valley Communications Association in 2015 to begin to develop a fiberoptic system. Its first customer was the electric utility itself. “Every device on our system, we need high-speed communications to, in order to develop the real smart grid — meters, breakers,” he says.

Fiber allows what Husted calls “an unlimited future” — only the equipment on the ends of the wires can limit virtually instantaneous speeds. The full build-out of the fiber system in VEA’s service area will cost about $100 million. Husted says fiber is a way to safeguard decades and hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in the electrical grid and what it represents: the building of a community. “To not do this is to make a conscious decision (that) we don’t have a future,” Husted says. “We call this place home, and home is forever.”

Power PlantThe new service will start at 50 megabits per second (Mbps) for $49.95 all the way up to 1 gigabit — 1,000 Mbps — for $149.95 a month. According to broadbandnow.com, a database of information about U.S. broadband connectivity, the fastest-connected cities in Nevada at the moment are Boulder City and Incline Village, both with an average speed of more than 46 Mbps. The state’s average is 37.5 Mpbs. (A megabit is one-eighth of a megabyte.)

The utility began with Beatty because the town is so compact. Beatty High School, where demand for fast internet has for years far outpaced supply, was the first to be wired. The rest of the town was scheduled to be wired by the end of this month. The rest of VEA’s service area will be wired by the end next year. Husted says the installation work has been slowed by the need for linemen in storm-hit regions such Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico.

The utility’s vision would not be possible without its own backbone of savvy business deals. In 2013 VEA became the first out-of-state utility to join the California Independent Service Operator, or CAISO, which oversees 26,000 miles of transmission lines in California and Nevada. “There’s a large potential for renewables in our area,” Husted says. The deal makes the small utility a key conduit in transmitting renewable energy from Nevada to California’s massive market of users.

The deal instantly made VEA the fourth-largest transmission owner-operator in CAISO and saw the utility grow the value of its capital assets from $125 million to more than $400 million. Between 2010 and 2016, meanwhile, VEA’s revenues have grown by 40 percent, from $50 million annually to more than $72 million without a rate increase. (The company doesn’t anticipate a rate adjustment until 2024.)

To further build out the system and bring down costs for end-users, the utility partnered with Las Vegas’ Switch Communications, which was building a fiberoptic line to link data centers in Las Vegas and Reno. When asked whether it’s feasible to roll out high-speed internet across rural Nevada, where more than 270,000 people live, Husted is bullish. “Is this a model that can be used elsewhere? Absolutely. It’s an easy blueprint. I believe it will come.”

The key is finding capital. While VEA was starting to install fiber in its own backyard, it began looking at expanding fiber beyond its service area, to other rural communities such as Tonopah and Gabbs, that have similar needs — but this wasn’t in its charter. “We have a lot of capital that was tied up in transmission,” Husted says. “So we put our toe in the market and said, ‘What’s our transmission worth?’”

VEA eventually struck a deal in September to sell 164 miles of high-voltage transmission lines to Chicago-based GridLiance Holdco. VEA will continue to manage the system. With the windfall from the sale, reported at $190 million, VEA will pay down $80 million in debt, and return $18 million back to its members in the form of a dividend — about $579 to all its members.

The new company, Husted says, “has the expertise, the wherewithal to expand this infrastructure into the West to better serve, to strengthen the electric grid.” And it’s needed. According to the Wall Street Journal, nearly 40 percent of rural Americans — around 23 million people — lack broadband internet access. Beatty residents know this full well, having lumbered along for years at speeds of around 2.5 Mbps.

“If your highest speed is less than 5 Mbps, you’re limited in what you can do online,” says Robert Williams, director of technology for the Nye County School District. There are 5,000 kids total in the school district, and 225 in Beatty.

Williams was formerly the principal at Beatty High School and knows how internet speeds can affect education. The school district for years has been conducting the yearly Measure of Academic Progress test online. “We could basically test one computer lab of students at a time, and nobody else could use the computers,” he says. “If you had a teacher streaming video in one room, you probably didn’t have a strong enough connection to do your grade book in another.” Teachers had to take turns using online course materials.

The new fiberoptic link to the school — announced in September at a press event attended by Governor Brian Sandoval — should create several positive impacts. For one, the district can now purchase online curriculum materials, whether a digital reading or a video that accompanies a reading, to aid students.

The school district hopes to provide every student at the school with a Chromebook to allow them to work at home. Given that many students do homework on their parents’ smartphones (these are common in Beatty; personal computers, not so much), affordable high-speed internet should make it easier for students to be productive outside of class.

Also, it should help kids “really understand how businesses work,” Williams says. “You have to be able to use a computer effectively to communicate. You can’t even apply for a job anymore without an internet connection.”

There are other benefits as well. The Beatty Medical Clinic will be able to more effectively serve as a hub of telemedicine. And others see the potential for rural communities such as Beatty and Pahrump to become more attractive to people looking for a scenic, less congested, more neighborly kind of life — provided they can have speedy communications.

Still, there might be some potential losers. Existing internet service providers in the area, such as WestNet and Mojave Development, stand to lose as VEA encroaches into their business.

Inside Eddie World’s, the massive candy, snack, and gifts emporium at the edge of Beatty, I caught up with entrepreneur John DeLee, who just opened a coffee shop here. He also runs Mojave Development, which provides internet services in the Amargosa Valley, and a real-estate business in Beatty. DeLee believes “high speed internet would have gotten here sooner if local ISPs had gotten access to the fiber sooner.” And he knows that since VEA owns the poles the fiber is being strung on, they don’t even need the wireless antennas that the smaller ISPs use.

“We don’t have a growth path currently, given the existing broadband situation,” DeLee says. However, he does say that faster internet will be a benefit to the community.

Husted sees fiber as part of an ongoing empowerment of consumers. “We see our role as not being the dictator of this vertically integrated industry: big generation, big transmission distribution down to the end-use consumer,” Husted says. “We see ourselves as the conductor of this orchestra, where people have rooftop solar, people have electric cars with battery packs — they’re not going to get all their energy from the utility. It’s going to be this symbiotic relationship of the utility and the end-use consumers working side by side.”

Still, some folks are a little bit impatient. Gema Moreno, who works at the tiny Gema’s Café (named after the cafe’s owner, Gema’s mom), says she doesn’t know when service is coming. Her mother has applied for it, but her existing service has been turned off.  “We haven’t heard that much,” she says.

The vibe in town, though, is one of casual optimism. “Folks who live in the rurals are usually calm about this type of thing,” Williams says. “We’ll wait and see how it works. I’ve talked with a few businesses. They were very excited. It will make an impact on their business. It will allow some parents to work at home.”

Huffman, the chili cook at Happy Burro, puts it the best. “In this day and age, you gotta have communication.” 

 

Fiberoptic FAQ

 

What is fiberoptic cable?

Optical fiber is a flexible, transparent thread of glass that is slightly thicker than a strand of human hair, which transmits light at nearly the speed of light between the two ends of the fiber.

 

What is optical fiber made of?

Glass optical fibers are almost always made of silica because silica has high mechanical strength, does not absorb water, and is highly flexible with a high threshold against optical damage.

 

How does light transmit information?

Optical fiber uses the changing intensity of light rays to represent different signals. If a light ray carries a message at an end of an optical fiber, the optical fiber will transmit the ray to the receiver at the other end. Since a miniscule amount of the light ray is lost in the course of transmission via a glass fiber, the messages can be transmitted over very long distances.

 

Why is fiberoptics preferable to copper or other more traditional transmission communication lines?

Fibers are used instead of metal wires because signals travel along them with less loss, they are immune to interference, and they can carry much more data than electrical cables.

 

How long has fiberoptic been around?

The first optical fiber communications network was not developed until 1975.

 

How fast is fiberoptics?

The speed of light travelling through a fiber‐optic cable is roughly 5 milliseconds per 1,000 miles, meaning that a communications signal from Las Vegas to New York City, a distance of approximately 2,585 miles, would take less than 1/72nd of a second.

 

Can you put that in easier terms?

Sure. A single optical fiber can carry more than 3 million full duplex voice calls or 90,000 TV channels over long distances.

 

Source: Valley Electric Association