Moving the Fiber Bar Forward and Upward (Mostly)

May 9, 2024

The past few months have been a roller coaster of progress and peril in closing the digital divide and connecting 100% of the nation’s households to fiber. Indeed, we enter summer with a sense of optimism as NTIA starts to approve more BEAD Volume II Proposals, with Kansas, Nevada, and West Virginia joining Louisiana as the first states that can begin accepting grant applications. Moving money to connect the unserved and underserved is moving forward, and we expect NTIA Volume II approvals to continue to ramp up over the coming months.

While BEAD moves onto the runway for takeoff, there is already a lot of federal funding moving into towns and communities across the country, including the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Department of Treasury’s $10 billion Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund (CPR), the FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), U.S. Department of Agriculture’s RUS Reconnect Fund, and state funding programs.

BEAD’s availability complements and sometimes supplements private investment efforts. AT&T’s Gigapower joint venture with Blackrock last year and T-Mobile’s recent announcement with EQT to acquire Lumos Fiber and migrate it to a wholesale model indicate two key factors that underline the importance of fiber soon and long term. First, fiber is the critical component in deploying high-speed 5G services nationwide, be it to cellular towers and smart phones or fixed wireless services in towns and neighborhoods. Second, building and supporting 5G provides the infrastructure to go beyond towers and small cells into expanding fiber services to homes and businesses with an economic growth path to 100 Gbps.

This basket of growing public and private investment is moving the equipment side of the fiber ecosystem back to growth after last year’s purchasing slowdown due to pandemic-driven buy-and-stockpile mode because of supply chain interruptions. We expect this surge to clear the inventory backlog and swing the equipment sector back into positive growth in the second half of this year.

Today, gigabit and multi-gigabit symmetrical services are already available to half of America, with access to fiber broadband, enabling the fast and low-latency speeds people need for today’s entertainment, employment, education, and healthcare applications. As virtual reality, mixed reality, augmented reality, AI, and emerging spatial computing improve these applications over the next decade, even greater demands will require broadband infrastructure with immense scalability and durability to keep pace.

Fixed Wireless, DOCSIS, and DSL technologies have required continuous outdoor infrastructure upgrades to increase speeds and capacity. By contrast, fiber broadband to each subscriber is the only communications technology that can support decades of speed and capacity increases with no upgrades to the outdoor plant infrastructure.

It was somewhat encouraging to see the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) raise its broadband speed definition from 25 Mbps/3 Mbps – a number that has been woefully insufficient – to 100 Mbps/20 Mbps in March of this year, with a “long-term speed goal” of 1 Gbps/500 Mbps. Both are steps in the right direction, with fiber efficiently delivering the long-term goal today. With data demands increasing by 25% annually, fiber is the logical and multi-generational solution for the nation’s broadband needs.

Fiber’s growth around the country results in concordant growth with the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) and its activities. FBA continues to increase headcount with its professional staff and membership, with over 500 member companies on our rolls. Our Regional Fiber Connect events continue to bring in record attendance. We expect over 4,000 people at our annual Fiber Connect 2024 event and meeting in Nashville, Tenn., on July 28-31, 2024.

The exhibit hall for Fiber Connect 2024 sold out nearly a year in advance. Focused on “Accelerating Our Fiber Future,” FBA has a unique agenda planned that has something for everyone within the fiber broadband ecosystem with new content programs, expanded networking opportunities, and a fresh take on some more traditional activities. We continue to take this event to the next level as Fiber Connect has become the world’s premiere broadband event.

Future Regional Fiber Connect events will be in Deer Valley, Utah, in June; Des Moines, Iowa, in September; and Albuquerque, N.M., in November. We have also added our first Canadian regional workshop in Alberta on October 9. Our LATAM Chapter has held the first of its three Fiber Connect LATAM conferences in Puerto Rico on April 9. It will follow with events in Peru in June and Panama in October, each followed by two days of training and certification programs.

However, there are still challenges ahead in closing the digital divide. The FCC Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) has been shut down because its initial funding ran out. Over 23 million low-income families were enrolled in the program to provide an affordable broadband subsidy to those who needed it. Bipartisan and bicameral efforts are underway in Congress to appropriate more funding to continue ACP support through the end of 2024. However, given budgetary concerns, this is likely to be an uphill battle. 

Affordability is one of the keys to closing the digital divide, and it remains to be seen how the lack of an ACP-type program might affect the sustainability of new fiber networks in the years to come. COVID taught everyone the necessity of broadband as an essential element in today’s society for health care, employment, and education. The loss of ACP for 23 million American families is a setback for closing the digital divide. FBA and its partners will continue supporting efforts to restart ACP to assist those who most need it.

Focus on research

As the fiber industry continues to grow and evolve, the FBA focuses hard on research. It recently released the following studies and whitepapers during the quarter:

·       The “Fiber Installation Constraints Study” (FBA/RVA), conducted in February 2024, surveyed 238 small—to mid-sized network operators on their current concerns and challenges.

·       “Fiber Broadband Scalability and Longevity” whitepaper (FBA Technology Committee) February 2024 finds fiber has no known expiration date.

·       The “Fiber Deployment Annual Cost Study” (FBA/Cartesian) for February 2024 finds that aerial deployment costs range from $4 to $9 per foot, and buried costs range from $11.30 to $24.13 per foot. This report includes detailed fiber deployment cost elements.

·       “Measures to Define and Deploy Trusted Fiber” (FBA Trusted Working Group), February 2024, outlined recommended supply chain and security factors to ensure fiber service providers and government purchases get the most unswerving medium possible.

Fiber’s longevity has already exceeded 35 years since the first deployments, and the average lifetime is expected to be much longer based on the materials, technologies, and manufacturing processes used to produce modern, high-quality optical fiber. Deploying policies and procedures for acquiring trusted fiber is necessary to avoid complex and expensive “rip and replace” in the future, as we are seeing in the rural cellular sector today.

Workforce development efforts

FBA also continues its efforts in workforce development through its efforts to increase our OpTIC Path™ fiber technician training program across the country. Over 300 students have graduated from OpTIC Path™ to date, and we anticipate having nearly 1,100 graduates by year-end. FBA is at 51% of its target this year and continues to expand the availability of OpTIC Path to all 56 states and territories.

Through all these many items, fiber is just beginning what I would call its “rainbow age.” The investments of BEAD and private monies should provide fiber to nearly all U.S. households within the next five years. This multi-generational infrastructure will deliver better health care, create and support millions of new jobs, provide new economic opportunities for cities and rural towns alike, foster the era of mainstream quantum computing, and provide new sensing capabilities we couldn’t have imagined when the first data connections came to life.

Gary Bolton is the president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association. 

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