FCC rural broadband report takes 'middle' road, but fiber shines

MAY 29, 2009 By Stephen Hardy -- Acting FCC Chairman Michael J. Copps highlighted the "middle mile" as a common weakness in rural broadband networks and offered criteria for evaluating potential technology choices. His discussion of these criteria in some cases reflected favorably on fiber optics.

MAY 29, 2009 By Stephen Hardy -- Acting FCC Chairman Michael J. Copps steered clear of endorsing any communications technology in the rural broadband strategy report he released May 27. However, he highlighted the "middle mile" as a common weakness in rural broadband networks and offered criteria for evaluating potential technology choices. His discussion of these criteria in some cases reflected favorably on fiber optics.

The report, "Bringing Broadband to Rural America: Report on a Rural Broadband Strategy," does not fall under the umbrella of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act; it was mandated by the Farm Bill of 2008. However, its release now has invited scrutiny as a harbinger of how the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) might spend the $7.2 billion in broadband grants, loans, and loan guarantees the Recovery Act provides them.

Copps made sure not to praise or damn any of the technological options that funding applicants will likely forward in the coming months. He mentioned wired -- listing fiber, coaxial cable, copper wires, and broadband over powerline specifically -- terrestrial wireless, and satellite technologies in his discussion of media alternatives. He also suggested that some requirements might demand a combination of technologies.

However, he did offer recommendations for assessing whether a particular approach would meet a given need -- and some of the enumerated factors touched on strengths or weaknesses associated with individual technologies. Copps highlighted seven factors:

  • Latency: "Network technologies that create significant time delay can arguably degrade the performance of many interactive Internet applications," the report reads. "Latency therefore should be important in considering the best options for rural America."
  • Scalability: "Some technologies are easier to upgrade than others," according to Copps. However, he points out ways to upgrade fiber, copper, and "certain wireless networks."
  • Weather and environmental conditions: "Rain, snow, extreme temperatures, salt, pollution, and wind can degrade some technologies' broadband performance or even render a technology unusable until the conditions change," the report asserts. "Technologies that are adversely affected by typical weather conditions are less useful than alternatives that are not affected by weather."
  • Survivability, redundancy, and security: "Overall economics should be balanced with planning to ensure that critical facilities supporting large numbers of subscribers are adequately protected from foreseeable weather events. Middle-mile and backhaul facilities specifically should be capable of surviving harsh environments and foreseeable disaster events," according to Copps. "Moreover, all technologies present security concerns," he added.
  • Distance and topography: The report points out several hurdles wireless networks might face in this regard, including the need for uninterrupted line of sight, the use of higher frequencies in some instances that are less able to penetrated environmental obstacles than frequencies below 1 GHz, as well as the potential need for repeaters or amplifiers. However, Copps also noted that the poles or trenching wired networks would require might also prove problematic in certain areas.
  • Maintenance and repair: "Optical technology, because of its lack of outside plant electronics, relative immunity to moisture, and sophisticated diagnostic capabilities, offers significant maintenance advantages," the report reads. Fiber optics was the only technology praised in this section of the report.
  • Resource contention and "micro-congestion": This section touched on the differences between shared and dedicated bandwidth. "When comparing the speed of broadband access networks, it is important to consider peak performance, typical performance, and minimum performance," Copps recommended.

A possible point of spending emphasis
Those looking for a hot button to push with their funding proposals might want to consider the "middle mile" portion of rural networks. "Access to adequate and affordable 'middle-mile' broadband facilities -- the facilities that are commonly used to connect the 'last mile' ISP with an Internet backbone service provider -- is a necessary precursor to a provider's being able to deploy broadband services to its customers," Copps said in the report.

Pointing out that rural providers often have to lease these links from others whose infrastructure originally was designed for voice or cable-TV services, Copps added, "Some of these 'middle mile' facilities may have insufficient capacity, causing the transmission speed on otherwise adequate last-mile broadband facilities to come to a crawl or stall before the data reach the Internet backbone."

The American Cable Association (ACA) latched onto this idea in its comments on the report. "ACA agrees that a rural broadband strategy must address middle-mile connectivity," said the association in a statement to the press. "Many small and medium-sized broadband providers can't offer their rural customers high-speed Internet access at reasonable prices when the Internet backbone service providers are overcharging them for their low-capacity, middle-mile pipes."

Copps noted, however, that building out dedicated middle-mile infrastructure is only one option for solving this problem. Other avenues include revising universal service funding to help cover middle-mile costs, using current or potential infrastructure more effectively by coordinating with other infrastructure projects to reduce deployment costs, reforming interconnection obligations, and offering such facilities at cost-based or favorable rates on nondiscriminatory terms and conditions.

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