Futureproofing rural broadband telecommunications networks depends on the extent to which fiber-optic connectivity can be extended to every user, according to John Nettles, president of Pine Belt Communications. Nettles spoke during an AGL Virtual Summit in June at the session, “Rural Coverage Opportunities and Challenges,” moderated by Jeff Johnston, a lead economist for communications at CoBank, a national cooperative bank that provides credit to the U.S. rural economy.
“We would all be kidding ourselves if any of us were to say that we knew exactly what futureproof really means,” Nettles said. “If I could tell you what the needs are going to be five to 10 years out, I would be a rich man, instead of sitting here in Arlington, Alabama, dodging the thunderstorm that’s right outside my window.”
Nettles said that, generally, as the word is used today in telecommunications, futureproofing refers to fiber. He said that is not to say that wireless networks are going away or would be deemed irrelevant. “Hardly not.” He said. “Nor is there a single answer to the question of what throughput needs ultimately will be.”
In Nettles view, throughput tends to be seen as what an individual or a family needs for a pleasant user experience. The needs of the pandemic aside, he said, often throughput is viewed in the context of entertainment, in contrast with what trade publications promote.
“It seems like we’re on the verge of meaningful advances, including remotely performing life-saving procedures closer to where individuals reside, through robotics,” Nettles said. “To do that with functional equivalents of being there would require rapid processing of data and virtually no latency of each packet in both directions. Higher and higher throughput requirements are going to be there.”
Einstein’s theory of relativity says nothing goes faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, Nettles said, and it is logical to conclude that pushing fiber optics as deep as possible into the network is going to be a fundamental, proper requirement, if there is any hope of achieving the ultimate goal of everything for everybody everywhere. He said it also is obvious that wireless networks will hold a place in the telecom ecosystem for as long as humans remain mobile creatures.
“I can’t get up and drag my fiber with me to the next room, to the next building or to the next town,” Nettles said. “It’s going to have to be a balance between it all; there’s going to be a place for it all.”
Johnston asked to what extent national operators could have a meaningful effect on serving underserved and unserved areas. He noted that T-Mobile has been talking about a massive expansion of rural coverage. He said that part of that expansion stems from the conditions to which T-Mobile agreed when it acquired Sprint — they had to roll out a certain amount of coverage in rural America.
“I’m a firm believer that local problems are best solved when local groups come together to overcome the issue,” Nettles said. “My dad, who was the founder of the company, had a saying that absentee ownership was one of the death knells in a small operation, especially a rural operator.”
Nevertheless, Nettles said that with respect to capabilities, the big national operators make a difference. Even so, he said, they have to be concerned with investor returns.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a nonprofit, a co-op or a government entity, you have to cover your costs and to set a little for the rainy day fund so that you can maintain the network,” Nettles said. “If it’s going to require public-private partnerships, whether it comes in the form of the old days when, before we had walked away from the notion of a fair rate of return for an operator and a natural monopoly type environment or . . . .”
The problem exists today because of the digital divide, especially for rural America, because the returns have not been sufficient to justify the investment,” Nettles said. “There has to be something else to make it work. It’s not all one or the other. We have to continue to look for that balance point and make the best out of it.”
Among sources of public funds for rural broadband telecommunications networks are the Connect America Fund, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and Appalachian Regional Commission funds. Nettles cited an addition source, the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which he said is starting as a temporary program, “but there’s a lot of talk that it could become a permanent program,” he said. “It’s not only the availability, but also the affordability question that needs to be in the forefront of all our plans and activities.”
For the June 8 AGL Virtual Summit, Total Tech sponsors included Raycap, Valmont Site Pro 1, Vertical Bridge and B+T Group. Tech sponsors included Alden Systems and Aurora Insight. Viavi Solutions sponsored the keynote address. Additional sponsors included Gap Wireless, NATE, VoltServer and WIA.
Sharpe Smith programmed the Summit, and Kari Willis hosted. AGL Media Group has scheduled the next AGL Virtual Summit for Sept. 8. To register, click here.
Don Bishop is executive editor and associate publisher of AGL Magazine.