Every rural area has its own challenges to building out broadband services. But it is now clear that in every part of the nation, broadband planning begins with deciding where to deploy fiber optics. Whether a rural provider plans to deploy fiber to the home (FTTH), a hybrid fiber/fixed wireless service or become a mobile broadband provider, fiber is will be the critical element of every network.
That was the message that NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association and the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) took to Capitol Hill this morning. “We continue to see tremendous consumption driven by internet of things and all the devices that we buy now,” said Diego Anderson, senior VP and general manager of Lumnos Networks, a rural fiber network operator in Virginia, and a panelist at the session in Russell Senate Office Building. “Over the last four years in our fiber network in individual homes, we’re seeing the rate of consumption has almost tripled and that trend will continue to happen. Fiber is the key platform that we see.”
NRTC’s advice in recent years has been to concentrate on building out fiber backbone networks throughout a rural electric or telephone company service area. Population density and economic other factors will determine whether to extend full FTTH service to homes in the area, or to connect the fiber network to a fixed wireless network for the last mile.
Fiber, panelists said, is a long-term solution. They estimated that a fiber build today will have a 30-year life span and shield providers against future rapid changes in last-mile technology. Some internet providers have sought “to put a Band-Aid on their copper networks,” said panelist Larry Thompson, CEO of Vantage Point Solutions, a Kansas-based technology consulting firm. “It’s less expensive to do it right the first time. Getting fiber deep in the network is the right way to do it if you want world-class broadband.”
So, what can the Congress and the federal government do? The associations praised programs that give financial support through the FCC, U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies. At the same time, they said that the government itself has been a barrier to rural broadband. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS, pictured) acknowledged that inefficiency contributes to what he called a “brain drain” in rural communities.
“A huge, vast majority of the House and Senate believe that the maps that FCC was planning to use are not adequate and it would be a travesty to distribute $4.5 billion [in universal service funds] based on them,” Wicker said. He expressed confidence in Congress reaching bipartisan legislation to address the problem.
Ben Moncrief, VP, Government Relations for C Spire, a Mississippi telecommunications company, gave a real-world example of why inaccurate mapping data is so damaging. The Rural Utilities Service ReConnect program, which currently is taking applications for loan and grant support, with requirements to reach “unserved” areas for eligibility. “We thought that here was a great opportunity to reach some of these rural [Mississippi] communities … not just one house every eight miles,” Moncrief said. “We got the map, got our engineers working planning routes, and then we overlaid the USDA eligibility requirements [based on FCC 477 data] … And guess what happened … All the eligibility disappeared.”
Moncrief also mentioned the bureaucratic barriers fiber network builders have in getting approval to build through easements and rights of way, and especially getting permits to build on government-owned lands.
“There is such a variety of [barriers] out there when you need to get a permit to cross federal land. The applications are different; the times to get them are different, there’s no set fee structure,” said Brian Boisvert, CEO of Wilson Communications in Kansas, who has worked on the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee subgroup looking at permitting issues. “What could bring some focus is the bring some consistency to this process. To have a consistent form used throughout the different federal environments, because there are several of them that manage federal land.”
Gary Bolton, VP, Global Marketing for broadband equipment company ADTRAN, described how inefficiencies like bad maps and red tape result in wasted federal funds. “As a supplier of this equipment, the actual electronics are only 11 percent of the bill and 89 percent is all the other stuff that these [providers] have to go through to try to get permitting and right of ways,” he said. “If we could be much more efficient, it would make our money go much further.”