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Digital Divide

More work ahead on closing digital divide – but it should be done right

With the allocation of $45 billion in BEAD funding and another $25 billion in ARPA funds to close the digital divide, it would be easy to think that the discussion over how to build a once-in-a-generation network would be over. But the Fiber Broadband Association realizes that there are still many more conversations to be had with local, state and federal officials on the best way forward in providing future-proof high-speed, low latency broadband for all. There's a lot of work still to be done, and we want to do it right.

The FBA is working with its members and the industry at large on preparing and helping thousands of communities and millions of Americans live more connected lives. Our efforts to date include creating and continually updating the Broadband Infrastructure Playbook with NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association, a comprehensive guide designed to assist state broadband offices to best leverage federal funds available through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). We are also conducting a series of Regional Fiber Connect Workshops across the country designed to help prepare community leaders, broadband operators and public officials planning to deploy fiber or are already in the process of building fiber broadband infrastructure.

Through these efforts, the Fiber Broadband Association is assisting state officials and broadband offices in putting together grant programs for the best and most effective use of this once-in-a-generation opportunity to provide quality high-speed broadband to all communities. But education alone isn't enough. Workforce, supply chain and sustainability issues also need to be addressed.

To meet the needs for more trained fiber technicians, the organization has created the Fiber Broadband Association OpTIC Path Certification™ telecom installation course and is now working with trade schools, community colleges, technical colleges and veteran groups around the country to make this program available nationwide. FBA's supply chain committees are working to ensure that the fiber industry has the materials and products it needs to efficiently install the networks of the future. At the same time, FBA's sustainability working group is working with Association members to establish "net zero" targets by encouraging industry reduction of truck rolls, reducing energy consumption, using renewable energy and a range of ESG initiatives to obtain greater efficiencies.

Landmark investments in high-speed broadband need to be based on providing improved and sustainable economic outcomes rather than short-term quick fixes. The nation needs to invest in long-lasting, future-proof infrastructure for everyone and avoid the siren song of lowest cost/lowest bar solutions that only end up having to be continually subsidized and upgraded every few years just to try to catch up with the speeds available in urban markets and around the world. Families around the country suffered through the last lowest cost/lowest bar decision during COVID when the FCC's 25/3 Mbit/s broadband standard was shown to be woefully inadequate and outdated to support simultaneous work-from-home and distance education needs for a typical family.

Omdia's 2022 research found 1 Gbit/s speeds as the global broadband standard with gigabit availability in over 88 percent of North America. New-build fiber installations in 2022 are already starting to install 10Gbit/s-capable equipment because it's more cost-effective and provides a path to 10 Gbit/s speeds while 25Gbit/s speeds are starting to be introduced into the market. Against this backdrop, deploying technologies barely capable of 100 Mbit/s speeds is pennywise and pound foolish.

During COVID, the families and communities that benefited the most from high-speed broadband were those with fiber capable of delivering high-speed, low-latency symmetrical services that could easily be turned up faster as necessary. Other broadband technologies on the market were simply incapable of providing the responsiveness and speeds necessary to support families during this time, leaving civic leaders around the country calling for investment into better, "build once" broadband infrastructure.

To even discuss the deployment of fixed wireless as a broadband solution means first bringing fiber into areas and communities that don't have it. If you are bringing fiber into the area to support fixed wireless, state and community leaders need to have an informed discussion around the total cost of ownership between fiber and fixed wireless and the documented long-term economic benefits fiber delivers.

Fiber provides a cost-effective, growth-capable solution to meet the needs of communities and homes for generations; it can easily be upgraded from 100 Mbit/s symmetrical speeds to 10 Gbit/s and beyond in the years to come. Other options just don't have this capability and will require continued major capital upgrades as speeds increase, putting communities on a hamster wheel of broadband project funding, always trying to catch up and never getting there.

Operators of legacy technologies have recognized the need to move to fiber to improve reliability and support high-speed symmetrical services. Large carriers are in the process of "Copper Sunsetting" their existing plant, replacing copper wiring with fiber to reduce power, operational, and repair costs. The cable industry is on a similar path, touting a "fiber deep" strategy and, in some cases, entirely replacing legacy RF cable equipment with fiber to gain the same benefits.

National and state leaders also need to consider the documented return on investment and other benefits fiber broadband networks deliver to once economically challenged communities. Chattanooga, Tennessee's investment as the country's first "gig city" at $220 million a decade ago was initially viewed with skepticism. However, the most recent independent study by the University of Tennessee found that it had delivered a $2.69 billion return on investment in its first decade, directly supporting the creation and retention of nearly 10,000 jobs in the region along with keeping the local unemployment rate lower, reducing power outages and bringing in a larger tax base for increased public service funding.

Chattanooga is not alone. Recent FBA-sponsored research documented the financial benefits that fiber has brought to Douglas County, Oregon, and Westfield, Massachusetts. Douglas County's fiber deployment has created $28 million per year in benefits for the area, along with high-speed connectivity for the local medical centers, schools, government offices and wildfire command centers. Westfield, Massachusetts, realizes over $88 million per year in job-related benefits and the creation of over 4,600 work-from-home jobs for a city of 41,000 people.

Fiber is the only technology that can provide the low latency, capacity and high-speed necessary to support sustained economic growth and the cornerstone to deploy 5G services across the country. This technology unlocks unlimited possibilities in improving efficiencies and opening up new applications. Improving the environment through the use of SmartGrid technologies to best use and manage electricity, telemedicine to improve the health of people by providing easy access to doctors and specialists and precision agriculture for better crop yields and lower usage of fertilizer and pesticides are just a few of the benefits fiber brings to the table.

Most importantly, fiber provides a future path for applications we haven't even dreamed of yet. We don't want to shut the door on communities to these opportunities just because we're trying to save a couple of bucks in the short term. Policymakers need to realize today's fiber broadband network is the Interstate Highway System of the 21st century, but one that we can deliver to all the cities and towns of the United States.

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