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Partnership powers students during a pandemic

April 27, 2020 | Jason Kuiper | community, public power
Carter Lake wifi map

When the Council Bluffs Community School District announced it would be going to distance learning March 17 due to the coronavirus, the importance of high-speed internet service became more evident than ever. But in Carter Lake – which is an OPPD customer despite being in Iowa – not all students had internet access.

A phone call to OPPD officials fast tracked a plan to expand access to areas of Carter Lake in need.

When Google came to Council Bluffs, an initiative launched to provide free public Wi-Fi in the city. In 2016, the “BLink” program began as a partnership between the City of Council Bluffs and the Bluffs’ school district. The Council Bluffs Area Wi-Fi Consortium (CBAWC) is responsible for the planning, installation, and maintenance of the BLink Wi-Fi network.

The consortium’s mission is to provide free public Wi-Fi where it is financially and technically feasible.

Emerging need

There are 800 students who live in Carter Lake who attend Council Bluffs Public Schools. The district sent home work packets and Chromebook laptops for students to help them stay connected during remote learning. The plan needed reliable broadband internet, and that wasn’t available to some students in Carter Lake.

David Fringer, chief technology officer for the Council Bluffs Community School District, said there were plans to expand community WiFi in another area when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. But the plan changed when the need in Carter Lake arose, thanks in part to OPPD’s ability to fast-track necessary approvals to install equipment.

OPPD does not provide WiFi, but the utility does allow WiFi attachments on its streetlight poles. Typically, granting “right of way” access on those poles can take weeks, even months.

WiFi attachment_sized
Devices like this one will be attached to streetlight poles around parts of Carter Lake.

But being a public power utility that prides itself on serving its communities, OPPD officials were able to make it happen in just three days.

“I was blown away by OPPD,” Fringer said. “The response from OPPD was remarkable; we couldn’t believe how fast we got a pole attachment contract.”

Partnership possibilities

Fringer said the willingness of OPPD and Carter Lake city officials to work with the school district made the project possible.

“This is an amazing story of these organizations putting children and families first,” Fringer said.

The Carter Lake project highlights the strengths of a public power utility and how they work with community partners, said Todd McLochlin, manager of Utilities and Right of Way Coordination at OPPD.

Work on the project is expected to begin this week, he said.

Funding

Fringer said $200,000 in funding for the Carter Lake project comes from the Iowa West Foundation and Google Data Center Council Bluffs.

It was important for officials at the Iowa West Foundation to help fill the need in Carter Lake.

“Technology can be a great equalizer for students and families but without access, it can’t happen,” said Pete Tulipana, president and CEO of the Iowa West Foundation. “This kind of collaboration is a tremendous example of how when public organizations, private businesses and philanthropy work together, significant benefits can happen for  hundreds of families. We are pleased to help bring this wonderful asset to Carter Lake.”

Carter Lake officials praised the collaboration. Ron Cumberledge, mayor of Carter Lake, said he has met and worked with some “amazing people and organizations” during his short time in office.

“This project is a great example of that,” Cumberledge said. “We are a small town of 3,700 people and many families have no internet access. This brings that tool to aid in the advancement in learning to all.”

The work with Carter Lake and Council Bluffs Schools is in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But for much of OPPD, the nature of the work has not changed, especially in the field and in the power plants.

Projects

OPPD employees are still delivering energy to customers under guidelines from health officials, including social distancing.

OPPD’s substation department continues to move forward with capital expansion and improvement projects that were scheduled months prior to COVID-19.

The engineering design work is also not stopping. OPPD teams have used digital communication tools such as Webex to continue to collaborate while working from home, said Dannie Buelt, director of Engineering.

In some cases, design work conducted using paper plans have given way to digital alternatives. For example, employees now digitally manage drawing markups and logs, Buelt said.

“Utilizing these tools ensures the design work is ready regardless of when the teams return to the office environment,” Buelt said.

Around the utility

Cheryl Limbach, manager of OPPD’s Elkhorn Transmission & Distribution Center, said metering services personnel are working with an extra emphasis on customer service. This includes making extra efforts to notify customers of scheduled tasks before they are done.

At Nebraska City Station, Unit 1 took a brief planned outage April 24 for generator testing as required by NERC (North American Electric Reliability Corporation).

“Significant planning and cross-divisional support has gone into ensuring that this essential testing is completed in a timely manner to meet our regulatory requirements, but done in such a manner that it minimizes risk to employees during this pandemic,” said OPPD’s Ryan Gerdts, manager of Station Operations at Nebraska City Station.

OPPD Energy Delivery continues to work on several projects that support a variety of customers. They include:

  • New load for commercial customers
  • Underground residential developments
  • Road-widening projects
  • Infrastructure rebuilds related to reliability
  • Streetlight maintenance
  • New customer services
  • Tree trimming.

John Buckley, director of Work Management, said that work continues for overhead line crews, cable splicers, underground construction crews, meter technicians, streetlight workers, troubleshooters and various contractors.

 

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About Jason Kuiper

Jason Kuiper joined OPPD as a communications specialist in 2015. He is a former staff writer and reporter at the Omaha World-Herald, where he covered a wide range of topics but spent the majority of his career covering crime. He is a graduate of the University of Nebraska at Omaha and has also appeared in several true crime documentary shows. In his free time he enjoys cooking, spending time with his wife and three children, and reading crime novels.

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