Creative Solutions to Help Get Fiber Farther —
We did not need a pandemic to tell us we need FTTH. Cord cutters are still on the rise, and streaming services such as Youtube, Hulu with Live TV and Sling TV, have taken cable’s place. It’s not just streaming services though; smart homes have evolved from more than just an Alexa device. Our lights, thermostats, and speakers, are at our fingertips taking precious broadband capacity. FTTH could allow each individual home to gain the higher bandwidth capacity it desires and needs.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that the need for fiber is crucial. Fiber allows individuals to connect online with family members and friends, stay current with the news, and, most importantly, power the economy. Today, it is undoubtedly stimulated through our networks. A strong Internet connection allows us to work-from-anywhere (WFA), shop online, make payments, and power our local community.
However, there are thousands of small towns and rural areas across the United States and Canada that do not have access to broadband Internet service (generally classified as providing at least 25-50 MBps download and 3-10 MBps upload speeds). That means that an estimated 20 million Americans and 63% of rural Canadian households have difficulty connecting to the Internet fast enough for Zoom calls, online research for classes, accessing cloud services, or ordering products from Amazon.
These deficiencies leave many small communities struggling to educate their children, maintain public and private enterprise, and maintain social connections despite the physical distancing. Fortunately, there are options available to communities to bring new or better Internet service to these more rural locations. One small town on the edge of the Kansas City metropolitan region is an example of how a public-private partnership was a successful approach to provide broadband Internet where commercial demand alone had never been enough.
Fiber Comes to DeSoto, Kansas
DeSoto, Kansas, is an incorporated community with almost 7,000 residents within an 11.2 square mile municipal boundary. It has had several areas within City limits that were not historically populated densely enough for the local phone or cable providers to offer broadband Internet service. This left only satellite service or mobile wireless service as limited (and costly) options for hundreds of households to access the Internet.
It also meant that many families were not able to afford to take advantage of the many benefits provided by broadband access. At the same time, local schools were making greater and greater use of Internet-based software, equipment, and methodology, for teaching and student assignments. This meant that some students could not keep up with their school assignments when they were at home.
One resident, Kevin Honomichl, recognized the impacts on his neighbors and threat to the community’s long-term competitiveness if broadband service was not made available to as many residents as possible. “Broadband has achieved a point of being critical infrastructure, just like water, just like sewer, just like electricity,” said Honomichl.
He started out as a member of a City task force to investigate the community’s choices for expanding broadband coverage. A civil engineer with extensive experience in telecommunications backbone design and construction for national data carriers, Kevin felt strongly enough about the importance of broadband access to run for, and be elected to, DeSoto’s City Council. He then worked with his fellow leaders, City staff, and other experts, to identify the most cost-effective strategy that would meet DeSoto’s needs.
In their case, their primary options for expanding broadband service included:
- Continue to wait for a local Internet provider to decide to invest in additional infrastructure to extend commercial service to residents. For-profit commercial providers answer to shareholders or private owners and are expected to have positive returns on investment. The low density of customers in the underserved areas of town would not justify the investment needed to serve them within a reasonable period of time.
- Try to convince a local communications or electric utility to apply for State and/or Federal funds intended for bringing better Internet access to rural and underserved areas. These funds are often prioritized for use in areas of relatively low average income, high unemployment, or other evidence of economic distress. Some programs allow for service to be provided with either in-ground or wireless technologies. Canada’s recent efforts to serve rural areas includes wireless access and is considering new satellite services being developed (i.e., Space X’s Starlink Low Earth Orbit network).
- Have the City form its own municipal utility to provide Internet service, just as other cities may provide water, sewer, gas, or electric service, to residents. This approach would give the City total control of the buildout of the system, and provide an ongoing source of revenue.However, it would also require the City to pay for all or most of the infrastructure investments needed to establish individual services (although cities may be eligible to apply for some State and Federal funds to support construction).The City would also be responsible for ongoing maintenance and future equipment modernization. Added management, billing, and service staff would also be needed to make this fiber dream a reality.
- Form a public-private partnership with a commercial provider to subsidize the initial infrastructure investments without requiring the City to take on the management and maintenance responsibilities of running a broadband service. Some requirements could be negotiated upfront with the commercial provider regarding the schedule of service deployment, available broadband speeds and pricing, and providing service to City Hall, the library, and schools.
After much discussion, the City chose to pursue the public-private partnership route. While there was some discussion about whether public funds should be used in this manner, it was acknowledged that bridging the Digital Divide affecting many residents would also provide some economic development benefits to retain jobs and attract new companies to the City. Subsidizing the buildout of broadband service was really no different than tax breaks and other financial incentives used in most communities.
After establishing their goals, the team solicited proposals from companies that were interested in teaming up with the City. They received 3 responses and ultimately selected RG Fiber based in a small town nearby.
After negotiations, the City paid RG Fiber up to $500,000 to install almost 41,000 linear feet of microduct of fiber. (This is an HDPE casing containing 7 individual conduits and fiber) to serve specific unserved areas. The buildout now provides gigabit-class speeds to 100 new locations in DeSoto that includes residents, businesses, schools, and City facilities, and allows free Wi-Fi service in parks and other public spaces.
Fiber Comes Home to Springfield, Missouri
Another strategy to deliver fiber to residents is to collaborate with other telcos and businesses. Recently, the City of Springfield, Missouri, was determined to connect more than 113,000 residents with high-speed Internet access. To do it they got creative.
The city decided to deploy additional fiber and make it available to lease to other Internet providers and businesses. While SpringNet maintains ownership and responsibility for the fiber network, service providers have access to available fibers in order to extend their services from the right-of-way to the premises. For example, the City of Springfield leased part of its SpringNet fiber network to Quantum (previously CenturyLink) for 15 years. (For more details, please visit www.springnet.net/network.)
To Deploy or Not to Deploy?
Now is the time to deploy FTTH networks. The technology is established, engineers possess the skills, contractors are capable, and capital can be attained.
Communities looking for solutions for fiber connectivity should consider:
- Public-private options that can utilize infrastructure incentives to attract a competitive fiber provider.
- Communities served by an electric co-op can consider the utility lease back model referenced for Springfield, Missouri.
- Options may exist to partner a competitive Internet service provider with a carrier who provides fiber connectivity to the local school district to add a FTTH component.
When looking for the right partner to help explore these options, be sure to ask them these 4 questions:
- Do they have experience with the full range of network development and deployment from feasibility and network planning, through design, construction, and service turn-up?
- Do they understand how service providers address the market to assess viability and approaches?
- Do they understand a range of solutions or approaches to help your community achieve its objectives in their unique situation?
- Do they understand the realities of construction and the risks associated with schedule and budget?
BHC has deployed fiber for 28 years across the US. We understand the importance of providing a consultative approach to those looking to deliver fiber to their community.
This article is co-authored by Randall Gorton and Sierra Bonney.
Randall Gorton, P.E., PTOE, is Vice President and Public Works Services Group Leader at BHC. He has 25 years of experience in civil engineering design and public planning. For more information, visit https://ibhc.com and email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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