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Rural broadband report talks up fiber, funding and supply constraints

Rural America's connectivity options are improving, according to the latest Broadband/Internet Availability Survey Report, which is based on the annual member survey from NTCA - The Rural Broadband Association.

Here are five things I found interesting while digging through the report, which was released earlier this week.

Rural America is very rural

The NTCA represents nearly 850 rural regulated telecom providers in 44 states. In its annual survey, the respondents report an average of 4,467 residential and 469 business fixed broadband connections in service.

The bar set for what is considered broadband is pretty low in this survey. As revealed in the survey's footnotes, "broadband is defined as throughput equal to or exceeding 200 kilobits per second in at least one direction."

And, while it's an obvious point, I still find it amazing how much land these carriers cover and how few people live in those places. "The average ILEC service area identified by respondents is approximately 1,906 square miles," the survey said. About "one-fifth (21.3%) have a service area of 2,000 square miles or larger."

For comparison, the state of Delaware covers about 1,982 square miles.

Copper is copious

Half of the carriers that responded to the NTCA member survey still use "TDM switching facilities for voice traffic within some portion of their ILEC networks." That's old school. About half of them also use copper to provide fixed broadband service to some portion of their service area. But the survey said that telcos using copper to deliver broadband fell to 50.5% of respondents this year from 65.8% in 2018, so fiber deployments are making a difference.

Fixed wireless broadband provides a competitive spark

Rural telcos are seeing more fixed wireless broadband service providers compete in their traditional ILEC (incumbent local exchange carrier) territories. The survey noted that 75.8% of respondents "indicate that fixed wireless internet providers operate within some portion of their service area."

About 20% of the NTCA survey respondents offer fixed wireless broadband service now and aren't planning to expand. A few less, 13.4%, said they "offer this service and either have plans to expand it or are considering expansion."

Gigabit broadband is on the rise

The new gold standard in US broadband to many in the industry is a 1-Gbit/s symmetrical connection via fiber to the premises. Rural providers taking the NTCA survey said that an average of 52.3% of their collective customer base can get a broadband service with "maximum upstream speeds of greater than or equal to 1 Gig."

As one would expect, there were slightly higher downstream service speeds reported. NTCA survey respondents report that an average of 55.4% of their customer base can receive a maximum downstream speed for fixed broadband greater than or equal to 1 Gig. In 2019, only 25.3% of the NTCA members' customer base could get downstream speeds that fast.

For all kinds of reasons, not that many have taken 1-Gig service, but those penetration numbers are going up as more fiber is deployed. About 9% of respondents' customers subscribe to speeds greater than or equal to 1 Gig now, the survey said. That's nearly triple the percentage reported in 2019 (3.4%).

Lots of room upstream
The NTCA said that, on average, more than half (52.3%) of its survey respondents' customers can receive a maximum upstream speed of greater than or equal to 1 Gbit/s. Here's a version of the graphic that humans can read. 
(Source: NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association)

The NTCA said that, on average, more than half (52.3%) of its survey respondents' customers can receive a maximum upstream speed of greater than or equal to 1 Gbit/s. Here's a version of the graphic that humans can read.
(Source: NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association)

Supply chain links

Pandemic-induced supply chain delays will be with us for several years. But the delays have already started affecting network deployments and upgrades. Some 80.4% of the NTCA members surveyed said they are experiencing an inability or delay in procuring supplies needed for network deployments and most of those carriers – 80.9% – said they were "either unable to acquire or are delayed in procuring fiber."

For most companies, this is a drag on the already difficult business of connecting the hinterlands. Only 11% of those experiencing various procurement delays said that the supply constraints were having "no impact on their operations." Nearly half of them, 46%, noted that it is taking longer to replace older equipment.

Related stories:

Phil Harvey, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

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