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.
Like many communications services providers (CSPs), Mississippi-based C Spire is on an infrastructure blitz — part of the $1 billion Fiber Fast initiative in which the company will roll out extensive 5G fiber backhaul and all-fiber Gigabit broadband services to more than 200,000 homes across Alabama and Mississippi.
Yet for all the enthusiasm about its services, C Spire is working to execute its rollout in the midst of a surge in network rollouts that pits it against equally hungry rivals vying for a finite pool of materials and skilled labor.
Sourcing these resources has become harder than ever. Global materials shortages in the wake of COVID-driven factory shutdowns have created a scarcity of components needed for the delivery of today’s fiber networks.
Many suppliers are working with 60-week-plus estimated lead times for materials and supplies, throwing CSPs’ plans — particularly those without substantial buying power — into chaos and threatening a range of medium-term complications if they can’t figure out how to be agile in their delivery to compensate for unpredictability.
Lack of Skilled Labor Is a Handbrake for Expansion Plans
Despite surging demand for networks, recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures suggest that the ranks of the country’s 215,700 telecommunications equipment installers will actually decline in coming years. The number of fiber telecommunications and electrical line installers is expected to flatline over the same period.
Because many CSPs don’t have internal construction capability, more than 45 percent of fiber deployment and management operations are being outsourced to contractors. This can deliver results, but mitigation of commercial and delivery remains a big issue, particularly in a constrained market with heavy competition for construction workforces. The ability to attract and retain quality contractors is just another consideration.
Resource issues have become key blockers in the success of CSPs’ broadband and 5G and network strategies. For example, Mississippi and Alabama — C Spire’s native markets — had fewer than 1,640 telecommunications installers statewide last month. Maintaining the cadence of its rollout hinges on the network’s ability to engage enough skilled staff and to source enough materials to keep the project on track for the duration.
Investment Is no Longer the Primary Barrier
The shortage of resources has presented a Catch-22 for networks keen to accelerate planning and deployment to take advantage of a surge in broadband network funding , which includes near-term investment of $242 billion in federal funding and grant programs and $6.8 billion in state funding.
Yet this investment is tied to strict timelines and delivery milestones. Additionally, while network operators may be able to win public funding by outlining an ideal buildout scenario, competition and unpredictable supplies can easily throw those timelines out, resulting in heavy penalties caused by missed deadlines.
For networks with no internal construction capability, the decision to invest in and train hundreds of new workers is no small order and often is not a viable option. Instead, a growing number of networks are turning to new automation and geospatial technologies that allow them to make much better use of the resources they do have, and to respond far more effectively when supply issues arise.
A technology-enabled approach unlocks a reduction in project and administrative overhead by automating construction, higher-quality inspections and change management, and their respective approvals via a single version of construction truth.
A number of CSPs have already seen dramatic reductions, up to 75 percent, in their resource requirements after adopting Render Networks’ geospatial network construction technology, including Craighead Electric Cooperative Corporation (CECC) fiber broadband project.
By reducing manual processes and mandating approaches that increase visibility and consistency — and, ultimately, margins — CECC was able to improve contractor retention across the multiyear deployment and reduce production timelines by more than half.
“Once the construction started, the rich design and field data enabled us to construct really efficiently,” COO Jeremiah Sloan said, noting that CECC had been able to deploy its outside plant 84 percent faster than it anticipated during network planning in 2018.
“We attribute this wholly to Render,” Sloan said. “It just makes the design very constructable. I’ve managed a similar process before,” he added, “and stumbled on the transition from what our engineers design to capturing as-built records centrally without needing to manually reconcile the data.
“We have saved a lot of money by eliminating the number of people needed to manage a project this size from 4 to 1,” Sloan said.
Location, Location, Location
The location-based motifs of digital construction management technology mean that every construction item — from contractor allocation to bills of materials and bills of quantities — is mapped to an optimal build sequence that is laid out in detail before the shovel hits the dirt.
By transforming the network design into a digital scope of construction requirements, visible on a map-based interface, network teams can access a real-time view of the entire rollout to track actual versus planned resources and identify issues as they emerge. Construction tasks can be rescheduled dynamically as resource availability changes, ensuring that work is allocated to crews with the right skill sets or who have proven to operate more efficiently.
Why Build Flexibility and Prioritization Matters
Network leaders increasingly need to prioritize build areas based on census block and location-based requirements — in the case of most federal or state funding programs — or the fastest path to revenue generation. By preparing the build in extensive detail prior to construction, operators can plan for material and resource requirements, particularly when funding has delivery expectations linked to service areas, available resources need to be allocated here first.
Flexibility in your build strategy and technology adoption to enable prioritization is incredibly important and is an enabler in the face of exploding competition, for operators to overcome supply interruptions and permit delays and to accommodate changes in stakeholder priorities.
Ultimately, many of the forces shaping the fiber deployment landscape are out of your hands, but in an era of continuing large-scale fiber investment, the solution is to focus on what you can control.
By tapping the extensive task management and project visibility capabilities of a network construction platform, like Render, you can ensure not only that your rollout makes the most of scarce resources, but that you can react to rapidly changing circumstances to build networks as efficiently as possible no matter how demand or supply change over time.
Sam Pratt is CEO of Render Networks.