Jumpstarting State and Local Broadband Initiatives

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Cutting Costs and Driving Adoption at the Edge

Given the compelling evidence before us, we find for the third consecutive year that advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis. Despite this finding, our work to close the digital divide is not complete. The Commission will continue its efforts to ensure that all Americans have the ability to access broadband.

2020 BROADBAND DEPLOYMENT REPORT, Federal Communications Commission

The digital divide is two-fold. It is one part broadband access and it is one part Quality of Service, or end-user experience. Massive, 300+ percent increases in two-way video collaboration, video streaming and other high-volume applications and content are straining our existing networks. For millions of Americans, the Cloud is simply too far away and too crowded to work very well. Latency, lag times, choppy and halting video, and other disruptions are causing frustration and keeping service adoption rates low.

To have a meaningful impact, we need to solve the performance gap by moving content and applications closer to where they are consumed. Adding a neutral place to connect, host and serve local community needs through a local Cloud is a cost-effective option states and communities should consider to ensure state and local broadband initiatives achieve the intended results and benefits.

It is time to move beyond dated assumptions about broadband access. Getting the physical layer in place, including fiber optic and 5G wireless deployments, are table stakes in 2021. To really make these systems work for states and communities outside the major network hub markets, there is a cost-share model and approach to bring the most important content and applications close enough so that they work properly. 

Enter the carrier-neutral edge interconnection point. Part local network hub. Part data center delivering the most important content and applications. Using a cost-share model for network carriers, anchor institutions, content providers, and public funds, this emerging class of edge digital infrastructure can transform the local digital ecosystem and deliver major market benefits as part of broadband initiatives.

The Old Model

In April 2020, the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the nonpartisan research arm of the United States Congress, issued State Broadband Initiatives: Selected State and Local Approaches as Potential Models for Federal Initiatives to Address the Digital Divide. The 22-page report highlights many of the approaches states and communities across the country are taking to bring broadband to the 21.3 million Americans currently lacking access. CRS uses the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) definition of broadband as a connection that enables a download rate of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and an upload rate of 3 Mbps.

According to the report, “States have been attempting to bridge the digital divide through their own broadband initiatives. While the majority of federal funding addresses network deployment, state broadband initiatives may demonstrate that other approaches can be complementary.” The authors go on to say that, “Leveraging the wide variety of state policies and initiatives as potential models for federal broadband initiatives could have the potential to help close the digital divide.”

Different Strokes for Different Folks

The report highlights different approaches employed by states and communities to close the digital divide. These include:

  • Broadband infrastructure deployment
  • Public-private partnerships for broadband buildout
  • Leveraging existing infrastructure assets
  • Broadband adoption
  • Broadband mapping
  • Broadband feasibility
  • Digital equity and digital inclusion
  • Gigabit broadband initiatives
  • Homework gap

While some of these approaches are making progress, the gains are mostly one-dimensional. They overwhelmingly focus on either the front end of getting fiber cable deployed, or finding ways to drive adoption by subsidizing costs to users. They ignore the middle ground where a local cloud, deployed through cost-sharing across stakeholders, can deliver high-quality service at a lower cost and transform the digital ecosystem to grow with the future.

The two ingredients for improved performance are fiber optic cable to carry the content, coupled with local peering of content and applications through interconnectivity. The fiber provides the bandwidth to support today’s high definition content. The interconnectivity provides the speed required for high quality service and performance. Performance suffers when two-way interactive content has to travel great distances back to core markets and then back to the user.

  1. Maximize Resources in Broadband Infrastructure Deployments. This is among the most common state and community broadband policy initiatives. They typically come in the form of grants to deploy broadband infrastructure such as conduits, fiber, or even wireless towers. One of the challenges often comes in the form of experience and industry knowledge. Even jurisdictions with dedicated broadband offices struggle with capacity. As one Mid-Atlantic state’s chief broadband advisor put it, “A challenge for all of our local partners is that the more likely you are to have a big connectivity problem … the less likely you are to have excess resources or staffing capacity to actually address it.”  Carrier-neutral aggregation points can better inform state and local planning efforts to use public grants where they are needed most. By using colocation and interconnection points to improve service/offerings to unserved and underserved areas, grants and other resources can be focused more directly on unserved or underserved areas in the community. Through its development of an ecosystem of partners, DartPoints delivers more than just space and power. They procure the necessary local networks, carriers, and peering providers, bringing together content, cloud and application providers to interconnect, creating a beneficial ecosystem for users in a flexible real estate solution at each unique point.
  1. Widen the Cost-Sharing of Public-Private Partnerships for Broadband Buildout. The main reason behind public-private partnerships is always cost- and risk-sharing. In the end, both partners share the risks and costs of broadband deployment. These partnerships can suffer when not all of the parties who can benefit are brought in at the outset. A trusted carrier-neutral edge colocation partner can help. The expertise and experience in demonstrating the various business model options for buildout will highlight revenue-expanding service offerings for local network providers, and demonstrate growth opportunities for Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) and content providers, as well. This expanding ecosystem further shares the costs and risks across multiple local and rural providers, who can increase value-added service offerings to customers. Together, aggregated customer bases can form cost-effective audiences for growth in the eyes of CDNs and national content providers. The best risk-sharing solutions also share in the benefits.
  1. Maximizing Leverage of Existing Infrastructure Assets. Another approach to reduce costs of deployments involves using permits and rights-of-way on or adjacent to existing public infrastructure, such as electric transmission lines, communication sites, roads, trails, fiber optic lines, canals, flumes, pipelines, or reservoirs. CRS also points out that Federal assets such as tower facilities, buildings, and land can also be made available via permits that allow their use in deploying broadband infrastructure to lower the cost of broadband buildouts and encourage private-sector companies to expand broadband infrastructure. Edge pioneers are building the experience to scale with each new project that becomes ready for service. They can help in examining the suitability of edge facilities and interconnection points as part of local deployment plans, including permits and rights of way. Each edge solution is different, as are the needs of the community involved. Focusing on service quality rather than a cookie-cutter technical or physical solution is one sure sign community leaders are succeeding in maximizing outcomes and performance, including making the most of existing infrastructure.
  1. Expanding Broadband Adoption through Engagement. The two big hurdles in adoption for broadband deployments are cost and education or awareness. Local providers are best equipped to educate their customers on the value of new or expanded services. The case for cost in that value equation will always offer the best outcomes when most or all of the local providers are engaged in the project. Through collaboration, all partners gain insights and experience to tailor their offerings to what their customers value most. A carrier-neutral colocation approach consistently offers the best cost-sharing to performance profile for all concerned. The results include higher performance solutions that simultaneously connect local/rural providers with community leaders and stakeholders for education and support. In other words, local providers succeed by both doing well and doing good.
  1. Filling in the Broadband Mapping Blind Spots. In 2018, Georgia funded a three-county pilot program to build an accurate database of all premises with broadband connectivity. When they finished, they found that the FCC national Fixed Broadband Deployment Map was not only inaccurate. It overstated or misidentified more than half of the locations without broadband. These errors can lead to best-laid plans that underperform. State may overbuild in some areas while neglecting the most hard-hit. As the Edge grows, that expertise and experience helps compress the learning curve by flagging warning signs like broadband mapping blindspots. This gives States and Communities the opportunity to leverage resources like feasibility grants and partner reporting in ways that can save cost and improve outcomes. Bringing in a trusted partner alongside local/rural providers can create the most impact through their expertise and track records of success in deployment planning and project execution.

No Communities Left Behind?

When America’s unserved and underserved communities have access to reliable and affordable broadband, we all win. For those lacking access, they gain the opportunity to participate in the opportunities and economy in even greater ways. For those expanding access and offerings, they gain the opportunity to compete with major-market and even world-class connectivity and service offerings. For content delivery and creators, they gain growing markets and customers able to consume and benefit from their offerings. This includes commerce and services, of course, but also supports education, training and opportunity that comes along with the best the digital world has to offer. The Edge is the frontier, and we’re out there making a difference for today and tomorrow.