When it comes to bringing broadband to underserved areas of the United States, there is a general consensus that wireless technologies such as 802.11y, WiMAX and Long Term Evolution (LTE) will be crucial to getting people connected. However, many experts and service providers say that fiber infrastructure could be a big a piece of the puzzle as well.
Any discussion of building more fiber infrastructure to expand broadband access has to start with creating more backbone capacity in rural areas, as both wireline and wireless operators need backbone access in order to operate high-speed services. Essentially, backbones are clusters of fiber-optic trunk lines that small ISPs buy bandwidth from to connect their users to the Web. The trouble that many rural ISPs have is that they are located farther away from backbones’ points of presence (PoP), which are typically located in major population centers. Thus, they have to pay more money for backbone access than ISPs located in more populated areas.
To rectify this, some small rural ISPs are considering banding together to create their own local backbones. Matthew Polka, the president of the independent service provider industry group the American Cable Association, says many of his members are interested in using stimulus funds to construct backbone infrastructure that will lessen their reliance upon big incumbent carriers.
“Our members are chiefly concerned with building the fiber backbone deeper into rural America,” he says. “That way they can increase their service speed and lower the costs of broadband connectivity.”
Harold Feld, the senior vice president for the open media advocacy group Media Access Project, says providing funds to have several rural ISPs work together to make a native backbone would be a smart strategy because it would benefit several small ISPs rather than the few large telecom carriers.
“If I were the NTIA [National Telecommunications and Information Administration], I’d encourage people to put in a cluster of grants that center around one large project,” he says. “I’d be encouraging people to think of this not as a zero-sum game but as a cooperative game… the way to think about it is, ‘You have a fiber connection and I have a fiber connection so let’s get together to build a backbone.'”
In addition to building fiber backbones in rural areas, some ISPs also think that subsidizing fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) connections would be feasible for certain rural areas that have relatively high population densities. Patrick Knorr, the COO of cable and broadband provider Sunflower Broadband, says there are some suburban communities in his vicinity that have been sprouting up in rural areas that would have enough population density to justify building out FTTH infrastructure.
“Fiber to the home, like a lot of wire-based solutions, is cost intensive,” he says. “But it is cheaper than DSL or coaxial cables. Fiber works better over long distances because it doesn’t require as much maintenance as a lot of other technologies. The issue is that there is a significant initial infrastructure cost, which is why there should be opportunities for subsidies to build FTTH in areas that otherwise wouldn’t be able to access fiber service.”
What about broadband over power lines?
Fiber isn’t the only way that ISPs are trying to deliver broadband to rural areas, of course. IBM recently started building out broadband over power line networks to deliver high-speed Web connections to areas that currently only have dial-up connections. In collaboration with Alabama-based broadband provider International Broadband Electric Communications (IBEC), IBM plans to deploy BPL networks through seven electric cooperatives in Virginia, Michigan, Alabama and Indiana. Once operational, IBEC will serve as the cooperatives’ official ISP.
Bob Hance, CEO of the Midwest Energy Cooperative in Michigan, says his company decided to participate in the BPL network program after issuing a survey asking its customers whether they wanted to get broadband access through their electrical service. The survey results, Hance says, were overwhelmingly in favor of signing up for the broadband program.
However, some network operators and analysts say BPL faces some major issues that make it unlikely to catch on as an alternative to fiber or wireless broadband technologies. In the first place, argues Knorr, any BPL operation will have to be run jointly by an ISP and a utility company, which will make maintenance more difficult than with services that are run exclusively by cable or DSL operators.
“The problem with BPL is that the power companies don’t have the expertise to run an Internet service,” he says. “It’s very difficult to deploy BPL practically.”
The other big problem with BPL is that it has yet to actually work on a widespread basis. Because BPL can run into interference with amateur and emergency radio, organizations ranging from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the National Association for Amateur Radio have declared it a non-starter. Additionally, some high-profile plans to deploy BPL in recent years have fallen
“Broadband over power line has all sorts of issues,” notes Declan Byrne, the CMO of wireless broadband access vendor Airspan. “It has problems with noise of the transmission lines and it has problems with multiplexing over power cables.”