Old oil pipelines offer unique conduit for US fiber-optics communications network

Fiber-optic networks -- glass strands, smaller than human hairs, that can transmit huge volumes of messages -- are being promised as being the future of voice and data communications. But where do you string these delicate glass strands without having birds or thunderstorms or earthmoving activities disrupt them?

One place may be inside of petroleum pipelines.

Teleconnect, a privately held company based in Cedar Rapids, has found a way to save as much as 40 percent in its installation of a fiber network linking Kansas City, Mo.; Omaha, Neb.; Chicago; Minneapolis; Tulsa, Okla.; and Des Moines.

Why bother to dig trenches when 85 percent of the proposed network already exists in the form of petroleum pipelines?

Teleconnect's partner in the venture is Williams Pipe Line Company, a subsidiary of the Williams Companies in Tulsa. The planned 1,200-mile network is to pull fiber-optic cables through pipelines that will no longer transport liquid petroleum.

``Ventures like this are going to absolutely transform telecommunications in the '80s,'' says Clark McLeod, a former science teacher who organized Teleconnect in 1979 to sell and install internal telephone systems in Iowa. ``Businesses are going to use these networks like they use local telephone lines now. This will be a no-compromise system, with no compromise on security, capacity, quality, and technology.''

One beneficiary might be Iowa itself, one of the states hardest hit by the downturn in the farm economy.

Teleconnect apparently made a believer of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, who agreed to announce the Teleconnect-Williams deal at the State Capitol. He called the network ``an advanced telecommunications system which positions Iowa for the future.''

The initial cost of the project is estimated at $26 million. Williams is to provide construction, Teleconnect is to provide marketing, and both are to share operational responsibilities.

They plan to extend the network by connecting it with LDX Net Inc. to reach markets in St. Louis, New Orleans, Dallas, and Houston, and with Litel Telecommunications Corporation to carry it to Indianapolis; Detroit; Cleveland; Buffalo, N.Y.; Pittsburgh; and Louisville and Lexington, Ky.

Although not in direct competition, Kansas City-based U.S. Telecomm plans eventually to include all 48 contiguous states, with a New York-to-Houston Link -- including Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, and Dallas -- by year's end.

The network would attach itself to 184 local-access transport areas (LATAs) and use an estimated 23,000 miles of fiber.

``Copper wire is becoming obsolete, microwave offers a limited number of frequency bands, and satellites cost too much,'' U.S. Telecomm's John Hoffman said.

Fiber optics can transmit color video at broadcast quality. It can make teleconferencing practical and economical.

It can provide education and entertainment to all manner of industries. It can help provide companies with the equivalent of their own private voice and data networks (which U.S. Telecomm's subsidiary, Isacomm, promises to do).

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