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Steve Truebner: Middle Mile Investment Essential to True Broadband Expansion

Increased focus on middle mile is necessary for access to effective connectivity.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Steve Truebner, sales director at Black & Veatch.

The term “rush hour” is synonymous with congested roads, sluggish progress, and frustrated commuters.

Lesser known is “internet rush hour;” a network-industry term that depicts the window of time when a swell of data traffic pushes network infrastructure toward its own capacity limitations, creating bottlenecks that impact performance and reliability for the end user.

Network bandwidth demand in the United States continues to increase at a rapid pace, making comprehensive capacity planning a bewildering science.

  • In 2022, broadband usage across the internet grew by 34% and another 29% in 2021.
  • Video data now accounts for 50-75% of all internet traffic. Mostly attributed to streaming services, but two-way video platforms bring a higher dependency on upstream network capacity.
  • By 2023, 5 billion mobile devices will be connected in North America – an increase of 40% from 2018.
  • Technologies like artificial intelligence, augmented reality and automated vehicles are not far down the road and will command substantial bandwidth requirements.

Whether for roads or networks, traffic management and infrastructure solutions are constantly evolving to meet future demand.

Governments build roads for citizens to live and work, and then enhance those roads to adequately support the volume and types of vehicles that utilize the route.

Broadband networks share similar principles in meeting future capacity demands, but the task is far more complicated and dynamic.

These diverse networks are typically privately owned and improvements are compelled – and limited – by financial return factors as much as customer satisfaction.

These networks are indeed our digital roads. They are essential in serving the public good and facilitating social and economic advancement. The challenge to prepare these privately managed assets is vast and complex.

To meet the increasing demand for personal and commercial connectivity, the U.S. is entering an era of historic public and private funding for broadband infrastructure deployment. This includes the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, delivering $65 billion in funding to improve broadband access and programmatically address the realities of digital inequity.

Broadband infrastructure is generally categorized as either middle mile or last mile.

Middle mile networks bring data from an internet backbone to a connection point where traffic is handed off to the last mile network, typically owned by an internet service provider, that ultimately services the end-user.

The networks are underpinned by an ecosystem of network technologies, edge computing and cloud storage essential to network operations.

The last mile and middle mile network infrastructure that make our connected experiences possible are highly interdependent in order to deliver high-speed, reliable and affordable internet service to the end-user.

This multifaceted network is the indispensable infrastructure that will support the digital upheaval that is touching everything in our modern society, and a citizen’s connection to the internet is often only as strong as the weakest link in the connectivity ecosystem.

Empowering the States

In the upcoming weeks, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration will release program guidelines for the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program ($42 billion) to be distributed to states, as well as the $1 billion dedicated to middle mile infrastructure development.

Specific to the BEAD program parameters, individual states will respond by submitting a five-year action plan that will be the guiding document for the strategic investment for their allocation of the $42 billion.

As broadband needs vary widely among states, it is imperative that the NTIA empower states with the flexibility to include additional strategic middle mile investments deemed critical to their local broadband landscape.

Many states have rural areas that simply lack sufficient middle mile connectivity as a precursor to last mile services.

In the past, broadband expansion funding has been primarily directed toward last mile infrastructure, which is undeniably important, but has also had the unintended consequence of fostering limited competition and enabling single service provider monopolies.

Meaningful middle mile investments, in concert with last mile deployments, will better prepare communities for the digital future and support the objectives of accessible, affordable broadband set out in this legislation.

There are a wide range of middle mile partnerships that states can consider as components of their holistic broadband plans, including utility partnerships, regional middle mile cooperatives, statewide middle mile initiatives and locally organized public private partnerships.

State broadband offices will be managing an extraordinary amount of funding in the upcoming years.

With local market knowledge and a holistic mindset to building the broadband infrastructure, we can be confident that this generational investment is future-proofed to avoid the traffic jams and network disruption caused by capacity constraints and can deliver on the fundamental promise of fast, reliable, and affordable connectivity.

Steve Truebner is a Sales Director at Black & Veatch. He has more than 20 years of experience working with the public sector. Specializing in public-private partnerships, he has led a wide range of energy, infrastructure and technology deployments across 30 U.S. states. Steve’s focus at Black & Veatch is on broadband expansion and intelligent infrastructure solutions with cities, states and utilities. This piece 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 expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

Expert Opinion

Paul Atkinson: Why Fiber Trumps Satellite When Bridging the Digital Divide

On the surface, satellite seems like the ideal way to close the rural-urban digital divide.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Paul Atkinson, CEO of Optical Networks of STL

The Grand Canyon in Arizona is 18 miles across at its widest point. The only thing wider is the digital divide between the state’s rural and urban areas. Roughly 99% of urban Arizonans have access to fixed terrestrial broadband services that deliver at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) down and 3 Mbps up, according to the FCC’s 2021 Broadband Deployment Report . Only 66% of its rural residents do.

Arizona isn’t an anomaly, either. Nearly 99% of all urban Americans have access to broadband versus 82.7% of rural residents.

This problem also is a business opportunity, which is why so many vendors and service providers are positioning their technology of choice as the best way to bridge the digital divide. The main contenders are satellite, fiber, Wi-Fi and fixed wireless access that uses 5G cellular. Each has its strengths and weaknesses.

For example, 5G FWA requires building hundreds of thousands of base stations in remote areas that might be home to only a handful of homes and businesses — a buildout that likely would take years and tens of billions of dollars. That’s a difficult investment to recoup and make profitable.

That’s simply not a viable business model, as a US Cellular white paper acknowledged: “ Our economics require approximately 500 subscribers to build a new tower, and we can’t assume that everyone will adopt the service. The cost of building and maintaining a tower in rural America can be nearly twice as expensive as building a tower in an urban area.”

Satellite and fiber have emerged as the top two contenders. On the surface, satellite seems like the ideal way to close the rural-urban digital divide because it doesn’t require hundreds of thousands of base stations. But satellite has its share of technological and business limitations, too — to the point that in August, the FCC rejected SpaceX’s application for Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) subsidies.

FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel questioned whether it was affordable to ‘subsidize ventures that are not delivering the promised speeds or are not likely to meet program requirements, especially when consumer would have to purchase a $600 dish.

Rural America’s high-fiber diet

The FCC’s rejection of SpaceX/Starlink is not a setback in bridging the rural-urban digital divide. It’s actually a milestone toward parity because it ensures that an unproven technology doesn’t divert scarce public subsidies from a proven one.

As Gary Bolton, Fiber Broadband Association president and CEO rightly stated, this is a huge victory for 640,000 families who were relegated to Low Earth Orbit Satellite service. They could have been redlined from being eligible for fiber broadband. There is now clarity and a path forward for fiber to bridge the digital divide.

Fiber has already proven its worth in rural America, where it has 23% of the broadband market and the highest customer satisfaction of all internet-access technologies, according to a 2021 Pivot Group study . By comparison, fixed wireless and satellite have only 10% and 6% penetration, respectively. Cable has the largest share of the rural market, but many customers find it lacking: One third say they want faster speeds.

In fact, broadband speed is a decisive factor when people are deciding where to relocate. According to the 2022 RVA Market Research & Consulting study “A Detailed Review: The Status of U.S. Broadband and The Impact of Fiber Broadband,” 47% of the people who moved to a rural area in the past year chose one where fiber-to-the-home service is available. That preference highlights how rural communities can use fiber to attract retirees, young professionals, families, entrepreneurs and other demographics looking to escape to the beautiful countryside.

Fiber’s 23% share of the rural broadband market also busts the myth that as a wired technology, it takes too much time and money to deploy in sparsely populated areas, including those with challenging terrain such as mountains. Another wired technology — electricity — overcame those challenges 86 years ago with passage of the Rural Electrification Act , which funded utility cooperatives that built out transmission and distribution networks to serve farms, ranches, small towns and other rural places.

Today, more than 250 of those co-ops have built or are planning broadband networks, according to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association . Many have been in service for the better part of a decade — or longer. For example, in 2006, Blue Ridge Mountain EMC launched FTTH in Georgia. In 2019, it deployed a 7,000-foot line up a mountain, using drones to overcome challenges such as deep gorge and 100-foot-tall pine trees. In 2016, Elevate Fiber, a division of Delta-Montrose Electric Association, launched gigabit FTTH in two Colorado counties by overlaying fiber on its 4,000 miles of distribution lines.

Co-ops are just one example of how fiber isn’t just poised to bridge the rural-urban digital divide. It already is. That’s great news for rural Americans, who don’t have to wait on unproven, pie-in-the-sky technologies such as satellite.

Paul Atkinson is Chief Executive Officer of Optical Networks for STL. 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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Johnny Kampis: Wireless Survey Shows 5G’s Role in Closing Digital Divide

5G has experienced a quantum leap in growth since it first began rolling out in 2018.

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The author of this Expert Opinion in Johnny Kampis of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance

There was universal consensus that 5G wireless technology would be a game changer for closing the digital divide. The question was whether or not private investment would be enough to deploy the needed infrastructure. A new report shows that capital expenditures from wireless providers reached a record high in 2021, as 5G saw tremendous growth and will continue to help connect households now unserved by broadband.

CTIA’s 2022 Annual Wireless Industry Survey shows that wireless providers invested $35 billion into growing and improving their networks, the fourth consecutive year of industry growth.

CTIA said this is “a powerful trend that emphasizes the societal importance of wireless connectivity and underlines the industry’s commitment to building a robust platform for innovation that connects all communities.”

5G has experienced a quantum leap in growth since it first began rolling out in 2018, as infrastructure reforms that eased deployment barriers have resulted in 5G growing twice as fast as 4G. Since the Federal Communications Commission and state legislatures worked to modernize key siting regulations that could have stymied the technology’s growth, wireless providers have added 70,000 active cell sites. There are now nearly 420,000 operational cell sites across the U.S.

As CTIA notes, “More cell sites enhance coverage, encouraging adoptions and helping to close the digital divide.”

Clearly consumers want faster mobile internet speeds as the number of connective 5G devices grew more than a whopping 500 percent this past year from 14 million to Accenture 85 million. About one-third of American now possess an active 5G device.

CTIA points out that the number of connections that require wireless technology is helping fuel the growth – everything from smart watches to medical sensors. Such data-only devices represent about 42 percent of all wireless connections.

Wireless providers have invested nearly $121 billion into their networks since the launch of 5G.

CTIA notes that in an age of incredible inflation, the wireless industry’s investment, combined with increased market competition, has led to lower prices, “providing a welcome contrast to an economy where consumers have faced priced increases for 94 percent of tracked goods and services nationwide.”

Since 2010, the cost of unlimited data plans has declined 43 percent while wireless speeds have increased 85-fold over the same period.

Investment and competition have also led to new innovations such as 5G for home broadband and 5G fixed wireless. The latter is particularly useful in connecting rural areas where it’s hard to make a business case for fiber due to the cost of the last-mile connections. CTIA notes that 5G home broadband is available in more than 40 million households, providing home connections via spectrum with high capacity and low latency rather than a wired connection.

The report also points out that 5G is helping mitigate the impacts of climate change by creating green jobs in key industries. Accenture has found that 5G-enabled use cases should delivers 20 percent of the U.S.’s emission reduction targets by 2025.

5G is clearly helping usher in a new age of connectivity in this country. CTIA’s statistics are encouraging signs that the latest wireless technology is helping make broadband access available to more Americans than ever before. The best part of this growth is that taxpayer dollars are not being spent.

Johnny Kampis is director of telecom policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. This piece 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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Expert Opinion

Kate Forscey: Mobile Broadband Gap Needs to Be Remedied, Too

A recent study by CostQuest suggests that 37,000 more towers are needed to bring mobile coverage up to speed nationwide.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Kate Forscey, contributing fellow for the Digital Progress Institute

It’s no longer a question: Whether it’s launching a new business, keeping up with friends, or finding the cheapest gas station nearby, the Internet is quintessential to the extent we don’t even think twice—until we don’t have it.

While Internet in America’s cities and suburbs weathered COVID’s storm, rural and low-income Americans have struggled to get any Internet access for decades.  The well-known stories of parents taking their kids to McDonald’s parking lots to do their homework haven’t ended—far too many Americans still lack access to the broadband they need.

The federal government, however, is taking steps to change the story.  The FCC’s Universal Service Fund has awarded billion dollars to deploy fiber and fixed wireless service to unserved areas through an alphabet soup of programs like the ACAM, the CAF, the HCLS, and the CAF BLS.  The most prominent of these is the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund that auctioned off $9.2 billion in federal support to connect 5.2 million unserved homes with high-speed broadband.

Congress has stepped up, too, with the bipartisan Infrastructure, Investment, and Jobs Act.  That legislation sent $42.45 billion for states to build out fixed, high-speed broadband.  In addition, Congress created the Affordable Connectivity Program, allocating $14.2 billion to reduce the cost of broadband for low-income households.

Policymakers recognize the problem and their responsibility to do something, and they are taking action on a bipartisan basis.  This is good.  But it’s not enough.  All of this funding is directed at one broadband gap—fixed connections to the home.

Mobile connectivity gap remains unresolved

There is another broadband gap—mobile connectivity—that’s unresolved.  A recent study by CostQuest suggests that 37,000 more towers are needed to bring mobile coverage up to speed nationwide.

Mobile broadband is central to the daily goings-on of families and businesses as we leave our houses with the fading of the pandemic.  That’s especially true for rural communities where commutes are longer, educational opportunities are sparse, and precision agriculture is necessary to stay in business.

To be fair, work is underway.  The FCC allocated $9 billion in 2020 for its 5G Fund, a support program to bring high-speed mobile connectivity to unserved Americans.  But that’s only a fraction of the funding needed to close the mobile gap.  And the FCC cannot move forward with the 5G Fund until it finishes updating its broadband coverage maps, which it’s been working on since 2019 and should be ready this fall.

So what to do?  Well, the FCC can move forward with its 5G Fund.  The auction model for that fund, as the Commission has proposed, would work—the RDOF used a similar model, costing the federal government $6.8 billion less than the FCC originally estimated.  And that $6.8 billion in savings could be redirected to the 5G Fund now that Congress is working to close the fixed-broadband gap.  The only downside is that the 5G Fund is a long-term solution—it will likely take several years before the funding is awarded.

Private companies are bringing new solutions to bear

In the interim, private companies are bringing innovative solutions to bear.  For example, AST SpaceMobile is building the first space-based cellular broadband network, allowing existing mobile phones to jump seamlessly from their terrestrial service to the company’s satellites and back again.  If the FCC were to fully authorize the service, it could expand the reach of existing towers and lower the cost of building out 5G to the far reaches of America.

Following in AST’s footsteps, SpaceX’s Starlink just announced a technology partnership with T-Mobile to enable connectivity to mobile phones in areas that don’t currently have access. Amazon’s Project Kuiper has similarly partnered with Verizon to extend the reach of mobile networks.

The advantage of these immediate solutions is they don’t require granular mapping or government funding to get started—they just need the FCC’s okay.  And while they don’t solve the problem entirely (satellite service works much better in Kansas cornfields than in the forested hills and hollers of West Virginia), they can quickly close the mobile gap where they do work well.

I remain hopeful that we can and will close the mobile gap.  Just as Congress and the FCC have relied on a variety of solutions to connect every household, we’ll need a multi-pronged approach to bring mobile connectivity to every American.  That means moving forward on government solutions like the 5G Fund as well as private solutions that give companies the flexibility to serve new customers.

Connectivity is having a bipartisan moment—let’s make it last.

Kate Forscey is a contributing fellow for the Digital Progress Institute and principal and founder of KRF Strategies LLC. She has served as senior technology policy advisor for Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo and policy counsel at Public Knowledge. This piece 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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