Utility Companies Vital to Expanding Fiber Broadband Infrastructure, Company Executive Says

The length of time and expense of building out infrastructure make electric utilities uniquely suited to the task.

Utility Companies Vital to Expanding Fiber Broadband Infrastructure, Company Executive Says
Photo of Scott Pell, vice president of quality for FiberRise

WASHINGTON, August 24, 2022 – Electric utility companies will play a key role in the building out of America’s fiber infrastructure by providing their own cables and access to utility structures, according to a consultant at a Fiber for Breakfast event on Wednesday.

Scott Pell, vice president of quality for FiberRise, a consulting company that assists cooperative electric utility companies with broadband provision, said the length of time and expense of building out broadband infrastructure make electric utility companies uniquely suited to the task because they have existing structures that can carry fiber and can provide their own fiber infrastructure.

The comments come after Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.V., earlier this month introduced to the Senate the GRID Broadband Act, legislation that would make grants available to those who can build middle mile fiber infrastructure along existing municipal rights-of-way and use existing assets, such as utility structures, to more quickly build out broadband infrastructure.

Rural communities often lack adequate broadband coverage due to low population density – fewer users per mile of fiber means less revenue. In order to overcome this obstacle, utility companies that own fiber networks lease their “dark fiber” – fiber infrastructure that is unused – to internet providers in area. For the builders of infrastructure, this model provides a return on investment, and for ISPs, it provides the “middle mile” network that is necessary for their “last mile” delivery of service to homes and businesses.

Some “co-ops” are non-profit and consumer-owned, with the concept originating in the 1930s to put an end to the lack of electricity that was then commonplace in Depression-era rural America. Pell said FiberRise believes that co-ops have the potential to once again provide the infrastructure necessary to bring rural areas into the modern world.

In addition to co-ops, other types of utility companies are taking part in broadband expansion. In an article for The Pew Charitable Trusts, Broadband Access Initiative’s Anna Read and Lily Gong argue that investor-owned utilities will also be crucial broadband’s rollout nationwide.

“By employing and upgrading existing electric infrastructure owned by IOUs in middle mile networks, both electricity and broadband providers save money while expanding broadband service to rural communities,” the authors write.

Read and Gong detail IOU success stories in various states. In Mississippi, for instance, a single partnership between Entergy, a utility company, and telecom C Spire resulted in over 300 miles of new fiber infrastructure. That project spanned 15 counties and cost $11 million.

Pell said he believes that a greater spirit of partnership at utility companies and service providers will be necessary in the future. According to Pell, utilities and providers need to keep in mind the crucial role played by broadband infrastructure in America’s economic growth.