With fiber experiencing its highest demand ever, community broadband initiatives are popping up all over the country in an effort to bring the highest-speed broadband to communities that need it most. And while many large cities have already been chosen by the major players such as Google Fiber for expansion, smaller communities in rural areas face unique challenges when trying to get fiber out to the rural heartland of America. But for many rural Americans, terms like broadband, fiber, bandwidth and telecom are a foreign jumble of high-tech jargon that can be confusing. What is fiber and why is it so valuable? Why can’t fiber be easily deployed to rural America?
In this post, we’ll break down the different methods of deliver for Internet broadband, common hurdles faced when physically deploying fiber, the need for high-speed Internet in rural America and solutions for getting fiber out to rural America.
Methods for Delivery
Many Internet consumers may not realize that broadband, aka high-speed Internet access, requires a physical infrastructure that needs to be planned, permitted and built out similar to our roadway and transportation systems in order to operate. The Internet may be something we think of as “the Cloud” but it requires real brick and mortar buildings, towers and infrastructure to function. Generally speaking, there are three main types of modalities that broadband can be transmitted by:
- Copper- this modality involves using a twisted pair of copper telephone wire to deliver the connection. Because of its excellent electrical conductor properties, this delivery method was used primarily when the original telephone infrastructures were being built and is still the most common modality method today. Copper does have disadvantages as the bandwidth it can offer is very limiting; however, it was largely built out to rural America during the telephone era so it’s infrastructure is largely in place already.
- Fiber Optics- this transmission of information occurs by sending pulses of light through an optical fiber made of plastic or glass. Fiber is the preferred method for solutions running long distances and needing high bandwidth. Fiber has many advantages to copper wiring but it’s most important one is speed. Photons travel at the speed of light, whereas electrons that are used in copper wiring generally travel at less than one percent speed of light. Fiber optics also experience less signal loss than copper, are impervious to electromagnetic interference and do not break easily, unlike their copper counterparts.
- Wireless- wireless transmission is when the transfer of information occurs between two or more points that are not connected by an electrical conductor. This method is most commonly and widely used with mobile phones and enclosed spaces such as buildings or campuses. The major downside to wireless networks is that wireless signals degrade with distance; therefore, the further away the consumer is from the broadcast station, the weaker the signal.
Even with multiple methods to deliver Internet networks, there are many obstacles and hurdles that service providers must overcome in order to deploy high-speed broadband, particularly fiber, to rural areas across the country.
- Low population density- this is a critical reason why most service providers choose not to build out infrastructure, especially fiber, to rural America: there just aren’t enough people available to pay for the service. Service providers need enough consumers to purchase the product after installation is complete and many times small towns can’t support the business model. Fiber projects are very expensive investments for service providers to gamble on and many times it simply isn’t profitable to pursue them.
- Topographical barriers- mountains, rivers and lakes can make for scenic landscapes but when it comes to deploying broadband they pose significant hurdles. Trenching to lay infrastructure on a straight, flat road already comes with its challenges, and when adding in topographic barriers these challenges grow exponentially.
- Permitting- local, state and federal governments require specific permits to modify or add infrastructure through extensive processes which can take years.
- Weather- Climate and local weather cause construction delays prolonging the installation.
- Greater geographic distances- Rural areas are generally further away from large-scale resources, making it difficult to organize necessary parts of the project which translates into high costs for the service provider.
Need for Broadband
In 2017, high-speed internet is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity. Broadband access enhances educational opportunities at every stage, drives economic growth, creates jobs, is a fundamental aspect of the modern economy and as crucial as other physical infrastructure like our roads, bridges, drinking water and sewer systems.
But the need for high-speed broadband is still unmet. According to the 2016 Broadband Access Report conducted by the FCC, 55 million Americans do not have access to high-speed Internet (broadband is defined as 25Mbps download/3Mbps speeds). The digital divide is also disproportionately hurting rural Americans:
The 2015 report finds that … 17 percent of the population lack access to advanced broadband. Moreover, a significant digital divide remains between urban and rural America: Over half of all rural Americans lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service.
Solutions for the Future
One way to achieve fiber build out to these areas facing tough challenges is through community broadband initiatives, a mix of public and private fiber ownership and usage. While there are many federal funding programs to assist with these initiatives such as the USDA’s Community Connect Grants and the NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), we at TeleQuality have found that working closely with the communities is critical to achieving a fiber buildout. Community education, creating partnerships with community organizations and anchor institutions such as schools, libraries, and healthcare facilities, and buy-in about the potential benefits for everyone is needed for fiber build-out success. Many times if a company simply brings fiber to the area, they will open it up to the city, business and homes which can attract new jobs and economic opportunities from close urban areas. There are a variety of ways that public and private entities can set up community broadband; therefore, it’s important that cities work collaboratively to achieve the best sustainable solution for their community that will continue to be profitable beyond the initial project period.
At TeleQuality, we recently completed two fiber projects in West Virginia and Texas and one of our initiatives is to promote and push for broadband expansion into rural America. It shouldn’t matter where you live; high-speed Internet is essential for the 21st century.