In difficult business times, finding new job opportunities can be helpful, to say the least. One opportunity for electrical contractors working in fiber optics could be right next door, with your local city, county, state or federal government. While most contractors think about fiber applications, such as telecom, CATV or local area network (LAN) backbones, numerous other applications are being implemented by municipalities to support government services.

Many of these applications are security-based. Cities are installing surveillance cameras at a fast pace, many with funding for homeland security projects or as part of intelligent highway systems. Surveillance systems may be planned for municipal offices, street trouble spots, busy intersections or freeways. Traffic systems in major metropolitan areas are being upgraded to smart lights and CCTV monitoring cameras on fiber optic backbones, tied into central monitoring facilities in attempts to alleviate traffic congestion. Most municipal CCTV systems use fiber connections to reach the distance necessary from the cameras to a centralized monitoring station, often in the police station or municipal safety building.

Since so much of the communications among government agencies is now data rather than voice, or the voice is being converted to voice over Internet protocol, connecting all the local government buildings with high-speed networking and providing Internet access is done over a secure fiber optic network. Data systems include just about every commercial application except data centers, as most cities seem to outsource data storage for security and reliability. These projects tend to be a combination of premises and outside plant (OSP) installations and typically are managed by IT personnel.

At one time, municipal Wi-Fi on a fiber optic backbone looked like a big opportunity, but that seems to have fizzled. Offering Wi-Fi services from the city sounded like a great benefit to the citizens and, since the antennas would be connected on fiber, a real opportunity for contractors. However, delivering adequate bandwidth, providing technical support, meeting cost goals and, perhaps most importantly, competing with free Wi-Fi at practically every coffee shop and restaurant in town has derailed most municipal Wi-Fi systems, except those designated for internal communications, such as with mobile units for police and fire.

Some cities, such as Loma Linda, Calif., (www.llccp.net) are going beyond installing fiber for their own use and offering businesses and residences direct high-speed fiber optic connections. Since the city is going to all the effort to install the fiber it needs itself, adding extra fibers—even a lot of extra fibers—is relatively easy. Those such fibers can generate considerable revenue to cities, especially those now suffering from declining property values. Some cities in California are even rewriting building codes to require new developments to offer the option of fiber to every new home or building, using the municipal system.

Another potentially massive application is municipal fiber to the home (FTTH) systems. About 600 cities around the United States are already involved in such projects. Most are in early stages of development; many pending funding by bond issues awaiting voter approval. While such projects can be very large in number of connections, geographical area covered and total project cost (about $2,000 per connection), they may be unfamiliar to many contractors and require a lot of homework, alliances with FTTH vendors, and technical and financial risk. Part of the risk is disillusionment with the project by the local citizens if the project runs into problems—not unusual with an application using new technology such as FTTH.

Technically, municipal fiber networks are little different from any other outside plant or premises installation. From a business standpoint, most are design/build, where the contractor will have system responsibility. Contractors interested in these projects must be experienced with OSP installation of single-mode fiber and be equipped to install underground and aerial cables, splice, terminate, test (including optical time-domain reflectometer traces) and document their installations. Premises networks generally are little different from normal corporate LANs and will be recognizable to most contractors.

These jobs generally involve more than just designing and installing fiber optic cable plants. Many projects will include installing electronic hardware, such as video cameras, traffic controllers or communications equipment, installing the proper power systems and taking full system responsibility. Some of the equipment will be familiar to a typical communications contractor, such as LAN gear, CCTV cameras or even security systems. Some may be unfamiliar, such as traffic signal controllers that still operate at a few hundred bits per second on ancient communications standards like RS-232 that will require some serious study. Furthermore, the contractor usually will have to provide all the installation equipment, including that needed for trenching, directional boring, aerial installation, etc., an investment that can easily total millions of dollars.

Finding the business

How do you find out about these opportunities? Most contractors interested in government bid opportunities monitor two Web-based databases: Commerce Business Daily, now officially known as FedBizOpps (www.cbd-net.com), and McGraw-Hill Construction Online (www.construction.com), where you need to subscribe at not inconsiderable cost. FedBizOpps covers all federal jobs around the country (and the world). McGraw-Hill may be known by most contractors as it covers every kind of contracting opportunity imaginable.

Other contractors find word-of-mouth occasionally gets them jobs, when someone in the organization is familiar with their work and wants to hire someone that he or she can trust, and he or she can sole source bid the project.

Understanding the customer

Both contractors and municipal officials I have interviewed agree on one issue: The contracting organization often has little expertise in the area of fiber optic communication. The municipal contact may have an IT background, a public safety background, a municipal engineering background, or he or she may just be a bureaucrat with little or no technical expertise. During the planning or design phase, municipalities often depend on outside paid consultants to provide inputs on the project. That can be good or bad, depending on who the consultant is, what the consultant knows and when you get involved in the project.

Some architectural and engineering consultants seem to have learned about fiber optics from a half-day AT&T seminar 20 years ago and still think Biconic connectors are pretty neat stuff. Their lack of experience with fiber installations and current technology may lead to inefficient or even unworkable designs. Specifications may call for cables with too few or too many fibers; the wrong cable, fiber or connector types; conduit sized too small; routes too tight; or incompatible electronics, etc. One contractor I talked to complained that he was asked to pull new fiber optic cables into existing conduit that was already overfilled and to lay fiber cables in trays with messy bunches of heavy copper cables. Contractors I have talked to said they often have to do some prebid consulting with the customer and the consultants to bring the customer up-to-date on fiber optic technology. And, they pointed out, you can only hope the advice is accepted.

Since municipal projects often involve large quantities of fiber optic components, the customer and their consultants have often been visited by many sales people. By the time the contractor arrives, the design may be built around components that will affect the estimating process and may also require some manufacturer’s certification as an installer. Generally, government procurements cannot be so specific, so do not be shy in questioning these requirements and asking that an “or equivalent” phrase be inserted in bid documents.

Organizations may have favorite contractors, not just the mayor’s brother-in-law’s company, but companies they have had good experiences with that also know how the organization works. Companies such as that may be more likely to get business if they have a good reputation and the work can be specified for “no bid.”

Getting the job and making a profit

Needless to say, most jobs still go to the lowest bidder, so estimating is critical. Contractors I talked to said they had participated in bids in the million-dollar range where most of the bids are within a few thousand dollars. Bids that are too high are obviously going to be thrown out, but sometimes bids that are much lower will be rejected also, under the assumption that the bidder was incompetent. Thus, considerable time must be spent on each bid, and the estimator must be sharp to be competitive but still be profitable. Attention to details, especially to special provisions, is critical.

Big contractors usually have an advantage, especially in design/build jobs. First, they have the size to absorb the cost of bidding properly, since design/build jobs basically require doing the design at your own cost before being able to estimate and bid the job. They are usually more experienced in this type of work, so they can be more accurate in estimating. They may also have an advantage in component costs, since they have more clout with suppliers with whom they do lots of business. They probably own most of the equipment they need for the project. They probably have more expertise at project management.

However, electrical contractors, regardless of size, have an advantage over communications contractors, as they have the experience to do both the communications cabling and electrical power work, plus they probably already have all the licenses required for the work.

There are other procedures unique to public as opposed to private jobs. To bid on a job, you will probably have to post a bid bond, and if you get the job, post a performance and payment bond. Have your lawyer review the bid documents if you are not fully familiar with the conditions. Depending on the organization, there may be requirements for paying prevailing wages, and the contracting authority may confirm this by coming to the job site to question your workers. Military jobs may even require security clearances. Expect safety inspections on the job site also.

Is it worth it?

Only you can decide if the job is worth it. These projects generally are large, starting at $25,000 or so and going up. The risk is high if you are not skillful and careful, especially in the design and estimating stages. They will tax your knowledge of technology and design. They will tax your skill at estimating, bidding and project management. They will require greater investment in tools and equipment. Only you can decide if the rewards justify the risks.

Thanks to Mark Eades, chief operations officer, Johnson City, Tenn., Power Board; and Chris Pesavento, president and CEO, Dynalectric, Los Angeles; and others interviewed for this article.

HAYES is a VDV writer and educator and the president of The Fiber Optic Association. Find him at www.jimhayes.com.