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Economic Opportunity for Broadband with Rural Electric Co-ops

Co-ops have the chance to support education, healthcare and work-from-home coming out of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Drew Clark and Darren Farnan

March 2, 2022 – The chief operating officer of a rural electric coop that expanded into the broadband business by using its existing electric infrastructure said it has seen the new business outpace its existing one, which it said goes to show the importance of using existing poles to connect rural Americans.

Darren Farnan of the Missouri-based broadband provider and electric co-operative United Fiber, said his company has also seen a rapid uptake in higher-speed internet packages during the pandemic, with 60 percent of his company’s new customers now taking 500 megabits per second or one gigabit per second download service.

“It was such a game changer with Covid,” said Farnan on an Ask Me Anything-style interview with Broadband.Money on Friday, adding the company hopes to upgrade capacity and begin offering two, five and 10 gig service. “I mean, we thought we were busy and a lot of demand before and then that just blew the roof off.”

United Fiber has seen much more prosperity in its electric business from the success of its broadband provision, Farnan said, taking advantage of what it believes to be unique circumstances under which it is the only rural electric co-op in the which has more broadband subscribers than it does electric customers.

Farnan also said he feels that United Fiber has brought much needed internet service to areas of their electric footprint where rural telephone co-ops failed to provide service, including many smaller communities adjacent to the areas served electrically. He added that 92 percent of the persistent poverty counties in the U.S. are served by electric co-ops.

Entering the broadband business

This earlier lack of access for customers brought United Fiber into the broadband business almost accidentally during the days in which it was just an electric network, Farnan said.

Federal funding was essential to United Fiber’s foray into broadband, but many other co-ops have been able to make such expansions to their service using only their own funds as the co-op broadband model becomes more prevalent in other states, he said.

Earlier this year, Chris McLean, the acting Rural Utilities Service Administrator, said over the past two fiscal years, his agency funded more miles of fiber than power lines.

The company aims to take as active a role as possible in the communities it serves to ensure a profitable local economy – introducing initiatives such as rate discounts, particularly in December to help customers with their holiday spending, Farnan said.

Even with increasing broadband membership, United Fiber still views its electric service as essential due to increasing demand for things such as electric cars and does not anticipate phasing it out of distribution.

“Like I said, we’re unique, when you mention the tail wagging, the dog, it’s a little bit unique for us because we’re, like you said, three times the number of customers,” said Farnan.

“And we just try not to put labels on it, right? Our mission is to basically take care of our members and take care of the region, so we just look at it that way and it really benefits all.”

Watch the Ask Me Anything! interview with Broadband.Money on Friday, February 25, 2022, on Broadband.Money.

Reporter T.J. York received his degree in political science from the University of Southern California. He has experience working for elected officials and in campaign research. He is interested in the effects of politics in the tech sector.

Expert Opinion

Pierre Trudeau: Life in the Trenches, or Lessons Learned Deploying Broadband in MDUs

Behind every great wireless network, is an even greater wired network.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Pierre Trudeau, president and CTO of Positron Access Solutions.

Imagine community-wide Wi-Fi an industry standard in multi-dwelling environments. This is possible through the deployment of G.hn technology.

G.hn, an International Telecommunications Union (ITU-T) standard, is an access technology for operators looking to simplify their access network with an “Ethernet-like” technology. 

With G.hn, operators deliver advanced services, such as gigabit high-speed residential internet and 4K internet protocol television without the high capital and operational expenses associated with a fiber retrofit. Each G.hn subscriber port supports up to 1.7 Gbps of dynamically allocated bandwidth for near-symmetrical gigabit services. This enables providers to deliver a gigabit internet service to each apartment inside a multi-dwelling unit or a multi-tenant unit without the cost, complexity and delays associated with in-building fiber installation.

As deployed by Positron Access, G.hn is increasingly used by our partners to sustainably improve connectivity in multifamily communities. These partners offer in-depth analysis of cabling specifics and electrical as-built drawings of active properties to design a custom wiring solution to accommodate, rather than replace, each property’s unique, pre-existing infrastructure. 

Proven Benefits of Fiber Service Extension Applications

Our partners leverage their expertise of the Positron G.hn Access Multiplexer to enable MDU property management companies to offer lightning-quick, cost-effective, and dependable Gigabit internet speeds to their tenants in MDUs. Property management companies can then improve their service levels without the need for any building retrofit, which can be expensive and disruptive. Property management companies expand the services they deliver with an impressive ROI and minimal capital outlay.

The transformative nature of G.hn applications will make community-wide Wi-Fi an industry standard in multi-dwelling environments. With the broader installation of smart building systems including cameras, sensors, environmental controls, and asset tracking systems as crucial amenities for an improved resident experience, residents will come to view community Wi-Fi systems as another essential building asset. Owners that do not keep up with these developments will see the quality and capitalized value of their community suffer. 

The Process

Positron’s partners have developed a proven process to ensure a successful and sustainable deployment in existing brownfield properties.

In-Depth Site Surveys

The site survey process begins with a careful analysis of each property’s unique needs. Built from the ground up, the solution is designed to accommodate each property’s unique blueprints and connectivity requirements. Site surveys are extremely important to ensure systems are updated in the most economical way for each property’s connectivity requirements.

Minimal Interruption

The deployment process is aligned to complement, rather than disrupt, established occupancy turn processes. With little to no downtime, the installation enables property-wide connectivity, giving residents the opportunity to immediately connect to the internet, without reauthorizing as they move about the property.

Sustainable and scalable

Positron’s partners provide subscribers with an extensive support team, dedicated to each property’s continued development and operation, designing customized, future-proof solutions to ensure the network is both a sustainable and buildable foundation for upcoming technologies like Web 3.0, Wi-Fi 7 and 5G. G.hn technology is designed to be adapted and improved upon to grow in tandem with each property, working together to accommodate any future needs that may arise.

Lessons Learned

The installation of the GAM solution by Positron’s partners highlighted the importance of a careful pre-deployment site survey and this is applicable to coaxial and telephone wiring re-use with G.hn.

For MDUs where the telephone wiring will be re-used, the continuity of pairs currently used for VDSL2 or even telephone service, there is no additional validation required since G.hn is permissive and will operate without further pair qualification or grooming.  For unused pairs, it is important to perform a continuity test using the same tools and techniques used for the last 20 years for xDSL.  Bad pairs can then be identified and repaired as needed.

When re-using coaxial cabling, understanding how each room or apartment is connected is important.  Most MDUs are cabled with “home run” coaxial cabling to a common location where taps or splitters can be installed in a point to multipoint mode to reduce the connectivity cost of each subscriber.  Unlike CATV and DOCSIS, G.hn does not require coaxial amplifiers and fine tuning with attenuating taps.  If co-habitation with CATV is required, the G.hn signal shall be injected downstream of the CATV/DOCSIS amplifier with a simple 2:1 combiner device.  Otherwise, if migrating to IPTV or streaming, these amplifiers and attenuating taps shall be removed as they are no longer useful.

For some properties, the option of a comprehensive site survey is not always an option.  For instance, a property of about 450 doors no longer had up to date coaxial cabling diagrams.  In this case, rather than spending days “toning out” each coaxial drop with specialized equipment to document the coaxial infrastructure, we recommend installing the GAM devices in each wiring closet and pre-install the G.hn endpoint devices in each room or apartment and to record serial number of each device against the room or apartment number.  Using the endpoint auto-detection feature for each coaxial port of the GAM, it is then simple and efficient to use this information to fully document which door is served by each coaxial segment.

Overall, we learned that G.hn is robust and rather forgiving with regards to “less than stellar” existing wiring.  You can plan fiber extension by re-using the existing wiring in your building without too much concern about potential complexity, cost, or performance issues.

Pierre Trudeau is the president and CTO of Positron Access Solutions and a seasoned Networking and Technology Executive with over 30 years of experience. Pierre founded Colubris Networks, a leader in advanced Wi-Fi solutions for Wireless ISP, Carriers and Enterprises in March 2000. He provided business and technology services to several companies until January 2013 when he joined Positron Access as its Chief Strategy Officer. This Expert Opinion is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Open Access

Financing Mechanisms for Community Broadband, Panel 3 at Digital Infrastructure Investment

Panel 3 video. Join the Broadband Breakfast Club to watch the full-length videos from Digital Infrastructure Investment.

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Video from Panel 3 at Digital Infrastructure Investment: Kim McKinley, Chief Marketing Officer, UTOPIA Fiber, Jeff Christensen, President & CEO, EntryPoint Networks, Jane Coffin, Chief Community Officer, Connect Humanity, Robert Wack, former Westminster Common Council President and leader of the Open Access Citywide Fiber Network Initiative, and moderated by Christopher Mitchell, Director, Community Broadband Networks, Institute for Local Self-Reliance

For a free article summarizing the event, see Communities Need Governance Seat on Broadband Builds, Conference Hears: Communities need to be involved in decision-making when it comes to broadband builds, Broadband Breakfast, November 17, 2022

Access Premium content for Broadband Breakfast Club members. Login to your account below. Or visit Broadband Breakfast Club to signup.

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Fiber

Fiber Providers Need to Go Beyond Speed for Differentiation, Consultant Says

40 percent are unsure of their home internet speeds, said Jonathan Chaplin of New Street Research.

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Photo of Jonathan Chaplin, managing partner at New Street Research

WASHINGTON, November 9, 2022 – Despite fiber’s fast broadband speeds, providers must innovate and offer other benefits – like content bundling – to maintain market share as customers increasingly make purchasing decisions based on non-speed factors, argued Jonathan Chaplin, managing partner at New Street Research, a telecommunications and technology research firm.

“Our message to the cable industry is: Stop marketing on speed, put everybody on the gigabit tier, and start differentiating on everything else,” Chaplin said at a Fiber Broadband Association event Wednesday.

Chaplin also urged fiber providers to prepare to enter the wireless market, saying that wireless and broadband will soon “converge into one marketplace.

“It’s not a major differentiator or driver of consumers’ decisions today, but you need to start working on this as a product category to be ready for it by the time it [is],” he added.

And raw speed won’t be enough to attract customers, Chaplin argued. Although consumers say speed and price are the two top factors when considering internet plans, he said, his research shows that 40 percent are unsure of their home internet speeds.

Typical speeds have greatly increased in recent years, and Chaplin said faster service provides no perceptible benefit to most customers once certain speeds are reached. According to his data, “Increases in speed (above 200 Mbps) really have no impact on the satisfaction of a household with their broadband provider.”

Fixed-wireless uptake shows speed isn’t always king

The rise of fixed-wireless providers, who usually don’t advertise on speed, further demonstrates that consumers are willing to make purchase decisions on other factors, Chaplin argued. In fact, his research shows that many new fixed-wireless customers did not make the switch due to speed complaints.

“If you’re in the fiber business, you’re in a strong position. You’ve got a product that wins in the market today, but you cannot afford to be complacent,” Chaplin said. “The battleground for consumers is going to shift and you need to be ready for shift when it comes,” he added.

The Federal Communications Commission is considering a proposal to mandate “broadband nutrition labels,” which proponents say would help consumers understand the details of their internet plans. Researchers at the TPRC 2022 conference in September suggested that such labels should include “interpretive” data to explain the real-world implications of technical metrics. TPRC speakers also echoed Chaplin’s claim increased speeds do not necessarily correlate with higher customer satisfaction rates.

Industry players differ on substantive policy points surrounding the proposal, however, including whether labels should be mandatorily included on month internet bills.

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