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Fiber Providers Feeling the Heat of Inflation as Cost of Materials, Labor Rise

One fiber tools company says inflation is hitting broadband developers hard.

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Photo of Sam Pratt, CEO of Render Networks, from his Twitter account

September 8, 2022 – Inflation-driven high prices for materials and labor are putting significant economic pressure on builders of fiber networks, Render Networks CEO Sam Pratt told Broadband Breakfast Tuesday.

Inflation woes have gripped America for almost a year and a half. The latest consumer price index report has year-over-year inflation at 8.5 percent. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s data for August 2022, the median hourly wage jumped 6.7 percent quarter-over-quarter.

The fiber industry is feeling the effects of inflation like all others. Pratt, who runs the software company that assists fiber construction companies, said that fiber developers that already submitted cost estimates in their government funding applications but haven’t yet ordered supplies or contracted for labor will likely run over budget due to inflation.

Consulting firm Dgtl Infra estimates that fiber optic cables cost $60,000–$80,000 per miles buried, up to sixty percent of which pays for labor. Taking the average of Dgtl Infra’s estimate – $70,000 per mile – as current, and if quarter-over-quarter wage growth remains at 6.7 percent – as it has since June 2022 – each new mile of fiber laid will cost an additional $4,814 in labor costs come November.

For a fiber deployment of 7,000 miles – the length of Google Fi’s project in Kansas City – the next three months would bring a labor-cost increase of $33,698,000.

Government officials warned last summer that the inflation problem could make closing the digital divide more challenging. One official from Minnesota said the increased cost of deployments could even be pushed onto consumers, raising their monthly bills.

Streamlining production

Inflationary pressures make efficiency in the construction process incredibly important, Pratt said he believes, adding construction costs make up the vast majority of broadband funding. He said his company offers tools to allow users to digitally map all progress and to streamline workflows. Pratt said that extensive geospatial data allows builders to better identify and eliminate inefficiencies in the construction process.

Fiber

Public–Private Partnership Model ‘Most Effective Way’ to Address Digital Divide: AT&T Rep

The company’s president of broadband access and adoption initiatives lauded AT&T’s public-private partnerships.

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Screenshot of Jeff Luong, president of AT&T’s broadband access and adoption initiatives

September 28, 2022 – Touting its fiber build in an Indiana county, an AT&T representative said Wednesday that public–private partnership models for broadband expansion are the “most effective way” to bridge the digital divide.

Speaking at the Mobile World Congress in Las Vegas, Jeff Luong, president of the telecoms giant’s broadband access and adoption initiatives, said broadband builds should incorporate multiple revenue streams and allow local communities to adapt to their own unique circumstances.  

Luong said his preferred model blends public funds with private funds and the localized expertise of community leaders with the technical expertise of companies like AT&T. He said that AT&T has contracted to build fiber networks using the public–private partnership model in several states, including Indiana, Louisiana, and Texas.

Luong highlighted his company’s partnership with Vanderburgh County, Indiana, where AT&T is building a fiber network. The deal was struck last year and is scheduled to be completed in 2023. AT&T will own and operate the network, investing $29.7 million to the county’s $9.9 million. The county’s contribution comes from the American Rescue Plan Act.

And while he acknowledged the importance of federal investments, Luong emphasized the role of private investments in expanding broadband.

“The bulk of network investment comes from the private sector,” he said. “The upcoming federal [Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment] program has $42 billion to spend on broadband over four plus years. Let’s not forget the top three mobile carriers have [a] combined capital expenditure of more than $50 billion in just this past year,” he said.

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Open Access

In Video Session, Christopher Mitchell Digs Into Community Ownership and Open Access Networks

The conversation dealt with open access networks, and whether cities are well-suited to play a role in developing them.

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Screenshot of Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

September 29, 2022 – Community-owned, open access networks protect communities against irresponsible network operators and stimulate innovation, said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, at a Broadband.Money Ask Me Anything! event Friday.

“AT&T, Frontier, these companies have a history of failing to meet community needs,” said Mitchell. “If I had a choice between open broadband fixed wireless and fiber from AT&T, I’d be really, you know, checking it out.”

“[AT&T] is a company that will sell your data at the first opportunity, it’s a company that will raise your bill every chance it gets,” Mitchell added.

ILSR’s director said that in communities in which local ownership isn’t possible, such as in a town with a deeply corrupt government, there still exist contractual provisions that can maximize local control.

A right of first refusal, for instance, gives communities the option to purchase their local network if the original provider chooses to sell. Mitchell also suggested communities write performance-based contracts that institute penalties for network partners who fail to meet clearly outlined performance benchmarks.

Conversation entered realm of open access discussion

The wide-ranging conversation also dealt with the issues of open access networks, and whether cities are well-suited to play a role in developing them.

 “The cities are the custodians of their rights of way – they need to be, they must be,” said Drew Clark, editor and publisher of Broadband Breakfast. Because of the cities inherent role as custodians of their rights of way, Clark said that open-access networks provide cities with the opportunity to own the infrastructure portion of their broadband networks, while still offering private companies the ability to serve as network operators or application service providers.

Mitchell agreed that open access networks can be critical to broadband innovation. “We need to have millions – ideally tens of million – of Americans in thriving areas that have open access to kind of see what we can do with networks,” he said.

“Maybe a lot of those ideas won’t work out, but I think we don’t want to foreclose that path.”

In addition to overseeing digital infrastructure projects, communities can promote digital equity by utilizing established, trusted community-based institutions – such as food pantries or faith groups – to boost digital literacy and distribute devices, Mitchell said.

Mitchell added that these efforts must be ongoing: “This is more about building connections now.”

Broadband.Money is a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast.

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Fiber

New Whitepaper Shows Long Wait Times for Fiber Construction Materials

The Fiber Broadband Association has said there is up-to 60 weeks of wait for materials necessary for fiber deployment.

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Photo of Gary Bolton, president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association, via fiberbroadband.org

WASHINGTON, September 20, 2022 – Covid-19 and other supply chain stressors have contributed to lead times of up to 60 weeks for materials necessary for fiber deployment and operation, according to a recent white paper from the Fiber Broadband Association.

Speaking at a web event Thursday, FBA President and CEO Gary Bolton presented some of the report’s findings. The waiting period for fiber optic cabling is 52–60 weeks, the report says, and lead times for other necessary goods – e.g., 10–20 weeks for cabinets and splitters, 20–35 weeks for multiport terminals, and up to six months for home equipment – are also extended. The report also notes shortages or inflated prices of raw goods such as plastics, resins, steel, aluminum, copper, and wood.

Prices in the fiber broadband industry are also affected by the global semiconductor shortage. For instance, the price of neon – necessary for semiconductor production – has spiked in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which halted production from a major neon manufacturer in Mariupol and another in Odesa.

President Joe Biden last month signed the Chips and Science Act into law, which includes $52 billion to incentivize domestic manufacturing of semiconductor chips.

In addition, logistical bottlenecks still plague the supply chains, the report said: “COVID shutdowns continue in waves around the globe, with Chinese ports particularly hard hit this year. In April 2022, up to 20% of the 9,000 globally active container ships were stuck outside backed-up ports in various parts of the world. Almost a full 30% of that backlog was created by shutdowns in Chinese ports alone.”

Supply chain disruptions have contributed to the inflation currently disrupting the broadband industry. To avoid such disruptions, the FBA report recommends a series of strategies, including increased domestic sourcing of materials, supply chain diversification, and the utilization of AI technology.

“AI can help companies make short term, reactive decisions about how to source components, and it can also help them make longer-term planning decisions about where they will manufacture their goods,” the report says.

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