Rural broadband in the United States of America is steadily growing towards the fibre-based connection. Fixed wireless technology has always been seen as a bridge technology that would lead to getting fibre connections directly to homes in the rural areas; however, this has been affected by the funding mechanisms. This was earlier backed by Connect America Fund-2 which supported the fixed wireless technology. Now, with the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) which is predominantly won by fibre-to-home providers, states that have been building their own rural broadband programs are seeking to fund grants across the country to get fibre directly to homes. With some great state programs and infrastructure packages released, there will be an influx of rural broadband initiatives on a massive scale.
There has also been a steady increase in the amount of bandwidth the average user consumes. There is a need for more bandwidth to support the growth and consumption. The key challenge here is getting the technology to homes in rural areas. With farmsteads few and far in the country, the fibre cables need to run long distances. This increases the cost. Connecting a single household in a rural area may cost around six thousand dollars, which makes the business case much more difficult. There are other issues related to terrain and topography. Wireless, sometimes, has difficulty in working through trees and it is difficult to get fibre cables through rocky terrains as well. There are unique challenges to each individual state.
Affordability also becomes a challenge when rolling out rural broadband. This is part of the reason why the federal government has put out the emergency broadband benefit program which helps subsidise broadband connections. The new infrastructure bill also includes affordability – US$30 a month for broadcast subscribers that will help them pay for the connection. A variety of different pricing options and interiors are available for customers. Product designing and marketing have also been put into gear to let customers know that there are affordable options out there.
The federal government has also jumped in to help with getting people connected across the country. Better technical solutions are also being offered, including better installation practices which can drive down the cost, help affordability and adoption.
Managing the Costs and Delivering Best Service
How can service providers manage the costs?
Service operators and operators faced challenges during the pandemic due to the increased dependency on broadband for both school and work activities, which heavily impacted operations. Providers understood early on during the pandemic that the internet had become an essential service, whether it’s working from home, or studying or telemedicine. But the current and future build plans revolve around fibre and bringing robust access to customers while developing software capabilities that enhance the user experience in today’s digital economy. There is a push for additional programs to work towards continuity broadband across markets. Especially with the infrastructure bill passing, one can expect every state to stand up a broadband program because of the availability of broadband funds allotment through capital projects.
These funds can be put into a state broadband program. An initial round for each state is about US$100 million that will go into a state broadband program, which will be used to fund the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) mapping program. Post which, each state will get the granted monies on a need basis. The real goal of these initiatives is to get fibre out to rural areas and get customers served by resilient and future-proof technology.
Managing supply chains
Since Covid-19, there has been a tremendous strain on the supply chain; from raw materials, finished goods, to freight and logistics. So, the solution that STL has applied is to utilise a strong global supply chain. Operators working with partners are able to source material from different parts of the world to alleviate some stress on the supply chain. For tomorrow, it is important to understand what the customers are doing, where they are heading and what will be their need(s) in the next 24-to-36 months. This helps in utilising the global footprint.
Developing technical solutions to rural markets
Understanding the needs of a rural setting is the key. For example, if a trend states that the fibre density is going up along with fibre counts, it means that the factories need to gear up for the high fibre count cables. One may not need a cable with 1728 fibres but 48, 52 or 1444 which means lower fibre counts, but longer runs of cable. Setting up the factory to line with what the customer needs is the key, and not necessarily try to force solutions that might be too much for the rural space.
What are the public rural initiatives that have happened?
- State broadband programs
- Grants funded through the COVID-19 fund to cities in Nebraska and Arkansas
- Five grants in Nebraska for fibre-to-home projects
- US$50 million worth of grants in Arkansas for fibre-to-home
- Strong country partnerships – Kentucky, Florisa, Georgia
Fibre is being pushed over the next five years to support the digital economy. This is being transported into public private partnerships (PPP). Software security platforms are being developed by Windstream that support and enhance the customer experience. Providing greater access at symmetrical speeds is vital for customers to live and work in rural environments. Products and services are designed to elevate the user’s capability beyond just connectivity to the internet. The investments help enable greater processes on many fronts including agriculture. For example, in South Georgia, farmers use GPS to map their fields and utilise the same data to plan their crops to get maximum yield and maximum return. This connectivity and tethering is vital to the success of world markets.
Learnings from the delivery of services in other countries
STL has done massive projects around the world, including India. Mahanet, by STL, connects the state of Maharashtra, which is approx. 12000 sq. miles with 4000+ villages. This has been possible at one-third the speed and at 50 percent manpower by leveraging technology. Usage of drones for mapping, giving tablets and phones to field technicians, has helped with a quicker and efficient information update.
Broadband is a utility essential for healthy people and a healthy planet. Being connected is the biggest driver for these efforts leading to increased economic productivity. Being able to work from anywhere, study from anywhere helps many communities thrive. Leveraging this connectivity can drive employment and allow the economy to expand to its maximum potential.