As the United States prepares to pour nearly $30 billion into rural broadband and 5G networks over the coming decade, the question arises of what type of network infrastructure (Fiber? Fixed or mobile wireless access? Traditional or LEO satellite?) should be prioritized for funding — and how companies that want to expand rural broadband deployments will approach their decisions on what networks to bid and build.
The Rural Digital Opportunities Fund sets a minimum download/upload speed threshold of 25/3 Mbps, and it will have a weighted tier system to encourage bids for the fastest network — a shift from the previous Connect America Fund program, which prioritized the lowest bids rather than providers who were willing to offer faster service at a higher cost.
“There have been a lot of initiatives and financial government support for different broadband initiatives over the years,” said Kara Mullaley, who is market development manager for fiber provider Corning’s communications broadband initiatives, which focus on Tier 2 and 3 wired and wireless network operators, electrical cooperatives and small cable television companies. “I think what you’re seeing with the way that they’ve changed the RDOF is giving more weight to the higher-speed networks and those networks that are future-ready — those that are fiber networks — in the way that they’ve established the weights for the different speed tiers, as well as the latency. They are really giving preference to those networks that are all-fiber networks.”
While fiber is the de facto standard in urban and suburban network deployments, it hasn’t seen similarly high levels of deployment in rural areas. Large players haven’t generally not built out extensive rural fiber deployments. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but they often look different than an all-fiber urban/suburban network.
“You see it in pockets,” Mullaley said, adding that in particular, some electric membership cooperatives (EMCs) have built successful fiber networks. “Just because you might have a very remote area that is very hard to connect to the core with fiber, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a satellite feed or a wireless microwave feed, then going onto a fiber network within that community that then helps transmit that information,” she went on. “It’s not necessarily always got to be one or the other, you see a lot of different hybrid models, where it might be fiber to an edge, and then wireless from the edge, out. It might be wireless is the feed to a remote area … and then fiber within the community in small towns where there’s a decent population, but they’re kind of separated off in their own states.”
A big part of the relative scarcity of fiber in a rural context is the cost.
“The folks that are familiar with network infrastructure in general, whether they’re electricity providers or communications providers, will tell you that getting access to poles, permitting for trenching, or putting in new pedestals or new cabinets and all of those infrastructure elements can be … not necessarily costly in and of itself, but a huge time suck,” Mullaley said. “It’s extraordinarily difficult to manage getting pole rights/access, and then negotiating what those attachment fees might be in the aerial space, particularly if the poles are owned by different entities in the pathway they’re trying to run their network. … The most expensive part of a network is not the cable, it’s not the number of fibers in the cable. It’s digging in the earth or getting crews to hang [fiber]on poles — it’s the labor component that is the most expensive piece.
“So making sure you get it right can save you money, long-term, by not having to come back and overbuild later if you skimp a little bit too much on the early stages,” Mullaley continued. “And that’s important for the provision of all all manner of ‘dark’ services — smart city applications, security, Wi-Fi, certainly 5G densification. There are all kinds of different ways that … service providers of any kind can find to monetize their investments, if they get creative.”
Service providers also have to think creatively about what assets they already have and how to best leverage them, she added — or what technological tweaks, such as the use of active electronics or wave-division multiplexing, might allow them to push networks’ capabilities.
“When you only have a couple of premises per mile — versus neighborhood communities, that have 50-60 homes jam-packed right together where they’re easily accessed and usually the neighborhood has been cleared of trees, and even if you have to build in the ground, there’s not a lot of obstructions in the way — the business case can be very challenging,” Mullaley said. “And I think that’s where recognizing what assets you do have that you can leverage [is helpful]. If you are an EMC and you can use your aerial pole infrastructure, that’s super helpful and helps with the bottom line. If you’re going to build in the ground, do you want to trench and direct-bury those cables, or do you want to put in conduit that allows you to overbuild later by pulling in more cables as you need them? There are a lot of different ways that you can look at how to choose the pieces of the puzzle you invest in today that can set you up for success later, even if what you put in today isn’t everything you think you might need later.”
The interplay between leveraging wireless and wired assets can also change over time. Mullaley said that Corning has seen some providers who started out providing wireless-based broadband, but exhausted their spectrum holdings and then over-built their high-density subscriber areas with fiber — which freed up bandwidth on their wireless network to reach new customers.
She called out EMCs in particular as unique players in the deployment of fiber-based broadband, who may play a significantly larger role in the RDOF than they did in the CAF.
“Their business model is radically different than an industrial-owned utility or a telecommunications provider proper, because their membership owns them and so oftentimes, breaking even while delivering value to their membership and to the communities that their members live within, is seen as value in and of itself,” Mullaley said. “Turning a profit and getting that ROI isn’t really their singular motivating factor. So I think we’re seeing more and more EMCs looking for participate in this space, because a lot of these incumbents haven’t really invested, because that ROI may not necessarily be there. … They want to invest in networks that are going to stand the test of time.”
“The EMCs, by default, have a lot of pathway already available to them, so they’re not negotiating with anybody, it’s their own asset that they get to leverage, which does drive down their costs,” she added. “The way that they deploy and the type of network architecture they choose might also be different, depending on what their vision is for what type of services they want to provide long-term. Many cooperatives may have already started with connecting substations in a ring for their own network monitoring. They may already have dark fiber available in that ring that they can leverage to bring FTTH in spurs off to different neighborhoods.” Others, she added, may need to overbuild their current networks because they have not yet moved on smart-grid or smart meter monitoring or substation interconnection with the robustness that others have.
“Folks might think for fiber-to-the-home, you have to have a really huge, robust fiber count to support that infrastructure,” Mullaley said. “But if you’re not really looking to do smart city applications, and prepare for 5G and all these other add-on future services, if you’re just looking to do bare-bones, there are some lean architectures that you can deploy that fit that need, that might serve exactly what you need to do in your community. There are a million ways to do it, and I think the question just becomes, what are your objectives? If you looking to breathe life into your community and raise the bar for broadband in your community, and making a profit in the first 3-5 years isn’t one of your objectives, versus being future-smart-city-capable for all the things that that might entail? Those are different objectives.”
And the objective, she said, is the first place for network operators to start as they consider their options for network build-out.
Corning, she said, encourages a “build it once type of approach” and consultative conversations that “make sure that people look at all their different deployment methods, the architecture they choose to deploy — all fiber or a fiber/wireless combination — really understanding the whole landscape of things that are available to them, so they can make the best decision for their company, their community, their network and their budget,” she said.
“The digital divide is very real,” Mullaley added. “What we’e experienced here with COVID-19 has seriously shown a light on how critical it is to be able to get on a Zoom meeting and talk to your teacher, or participate in meetings from home. … I think the current situation has certainly exacerbated the need, and perhaps is going to motivate more people to rapidly bring broadband into the rural areas, hopefully more quickly than the timetables that some of these programs require them to build against.”
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