With federal and state government initiatives to extend and improve rural broadband telecommunications service comes funding from the Connect America Fund, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the Appalachian Regional Commission and a federal infrastructure bill. According to Jeff Johnston, a lead economist for communications at CoBank, a national cooperative bank that provides credit to the U.S. rural economy, the Biden Administration wants to prioritize nonprofits, local governments and cooperatives to receive funds from the infrastructure bill. Johnston served as the moderator for the session, “Rural Coverage Opportunities and Challenges,” during an AGL Virtual Summit in June.
Johnston asked Lori Sherwood how wireless internet service providers (WISPs), rural cable operators and rural local exchange carriers could play a role in partnering with nontraditional operators, with the assumption that they may not have the necessary engineering and operations experience to build and manage some of the rural broadband networks — presuming that eventually they would receive government money. Sherwood is director of commercial and market development at Render Networks. Render Networks streamlines large-scale network construction for network operators, ISPs and construction teams by using a geographic information system, mobile and automation technologies
“Many local governments and cooperatives are willing to invest in the infrastructure but don’t want to be an ISP,” Sherwood said. “Thus, there’s a huge opportunity for WISPs, for operators and others to step in and expand their customer base without having to invest 100 percent of the infrastructure cost.”
Recalling a project on which she worked a few years ago, Sherwood said a Texas community built the infrastructure and found a WISP already doing business in the community that wanted to expand into fiber. The WISP partnered with the community to become the ISP for its last-mile network, she said.
“The hardest part is finding the opportunities and forging the partnerships,” Sherwood said. “Many times, I hear from providers that they would love to partner with such a community, but they can’t seem to get any traction because the procurement processes are too tedious. My advice for anybody seeking partnerships is to be persistent and dialogue.”
Take a step back and say to community leaders that technology can be your best friend in helping to reduce some of the costs, she advised. Starting with the geospatial design, and using cloud capabilities and technology is, according to Sherwood, the best way to evolve modern networks to modern architectures and help them to be sustainable.
“Sustainability is what we’re after long-term, not just what is the best technology or rolling out the infrastructure,” Sherwood said. “We need to examine how we partner to build these networks, and use the right tools to help defray some of the costs and make sure that these projects are successful.”
Johnston asked Sherwood for her thoughts about using point-to-point microwave backhaul versus fiber in remote parts of rural America. “What should consider with these two types of implementations?” He asked. “To what extent do you think low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite networks could be a viable solution for providing backhaul in these more remote, high-cost areas in rural America?”
Microwave has a role in remote areas, Sherwood said. “You walk into some communities, and they say, ‘We’ve had this public safety point-to-point microwave link for 10 years that has served us well; it’s great.’ When you’re anticipating backhaul, the middle- mile infrastructure is one of the biggest challenges to bringing last-mile infrastructure. In a lot of these rural communities, it doesn’t exist.”
Questions to ask, Sherwood said, when considering backhaul, include: “What is the growth plan for this particular location now? Are you planning on building towers or other infrastructure, in the coming years? Is there going to be a proliferation in housing?”
Sherwood said that if the answer is yes, then microwave might not be the solution that you want to invest in, long-term. She said the last thing to do is to invest in technology that would not suit your needs in five years.
“If you’re going to be investing in something, you might as well invest for the future,” she said. “It doesn’t help you to build for speeds today, because you can have a pandemic, and everybody will be sent to work from home for a while.”
Sherwood said she is skeptical about using LEOs for backhaul.
“It’s flashy,” she said. “It’s the shiny bright object in the sky, literally. But on the residential side, I’ve talked with community folks before who spent $300 a month for connections to a copper line, a fixed wireless and a satellite, just in the hopes that any one of them works at any given time. It’s not practical in some areas, particularly in western Oregon or Vermont where you have geographical features and challenges. The best long-term solution is fiber.”
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.