December 2021 Vol. 76 No. 12


Demand for Broadband Supports Need for Fiber Optic Systems


Eben Wyman is a veteran advocate for key underground utility and pipeline associations. He points out that maintaining an effective advocacy program is fundamental to the success of any organization interested in the happenings of the federal government. Zack Perconti is an associate with the firm. Together, they will produce a bi-monthly article for Underground Construction providing keen insight related to laws, rules and regulations that directly impact the underground infrastructure markets. 

The Power & Communication Contractors Association (PCCA) has long advocated for broadband policy that requires or strongly encourages the use of fiber optic systems to effectively deploy broadband to all parts of the country. 

Federal policy should encourage use of the only material available that can provide broadband service capable of meeting current and future demand, by replacing antiquated systems with contemporary fiber networks. At a time when lawmakers pursue “technology-neutral” approaches to broadband deployment, the best way to encourage installation of fiber systems is by advocating policy that requires high upload and download speeds as a condition of receiving federal broadband dollars. 

Inadequate speed 

Federal and state policymakers continue to establish and fund programs intended to accelerate broadband deployment, especially in rural parts of the country. Programs overseen by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), such as the Universal Service Fund and, more recently, the Rural Digital Connectivity Fund, have dumped tens of billions of dollars into the broadband market. These monies offer federal funding to carriers who commit to providing broadband service in “high-cost areas,” where low populations do not provide a business case for carriers to build out broadband infrastructure. Federal funding helps incentivize carriers to launch broadband projects in these areas, mostly in Rural America. 

The problem is that the current target speeds – 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload – maintained by the FCC are entirely insufficient. In fact, when the FCC increased its target speeds from 10/1 Mbps to 25/3 Mbps, PCCA informed the commission that the new threshold was already obsolete. Rising demand warrants that the FCC require carriers to provide 100/100 Mbps for both download and upload speeds, otherwise known as “100/100 symmetrical.” 

Policy that allows for simple repair and refurbishment of antiquated copper systems serves as little more than a “Band-Aid,” putting off the repair or replacement work for only a few years. A Band-Aid approach actually perpetuates the underlying problem. Federal funding programs’ low speed thresholds give carriers an “out” by allowing them to improve existing copper systems just enough to provide the minimum speeds needed to secure the funding. 

Other associations representing rural broadband carriers have embraced and echoed the call for using fiber optic technology and educating on how fiber systems actually enable the development and use of wireless technology. A popular buzz phrase in the community is the need for “future-proof” broadband systems, meaning infrastructure that will not need to be upgraded in a short time to meet rising demand. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has underscored the need for reliable broadband. Closure of hospitals, schools, and other fundamental institutions highlighted the need to keep America connected. When the country was practicing physical distancing and avoiding in-person conversations, access to broadband service truly became a national priority. High-speed internet is clearly no longer a convenience. Communities across America – large and small, urban and rural – are clamoring for better broadband service, not because they enjoy it, but because they need it. 

Overwhelming workload 

On Nov. 5, the House of Representatives passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which sent the measure to the president’s desk to be signed into law. IIJA will authorize hundreds of billions of dollars for subsurface infrastructure improvements, including some $65 billion for broadband, more than $42 billion of which is dedicated to construction of broadband infrastructure. 

Requiring speeds of 100/100 Mbps would provide broadband systems that are as “future-proof” as possible. In the end, IIJA required 25/3 Mbps for “unserved” locations and 100/20 Mbps for “underserved” locations. While this is a big step in the right direction, it does not adequately address the need for higher upload speeds. Telemedicine, virtual classrooms, and virtual meetings are part of the “new normal” in a post-pandemic world, and all will require solid upload speeds. 

Broadband contractors often ask what seems to be a simple question about the most effective way to fund broadband projects: why don’t we get it right and provide for future-proof broadband, at a time when the nation finally acts on rebuilding all critical infrastructure? 

One especially compelling argument coming out of the PCCA camp focuses on the fact that contractors are doing the vast majority of broadband construction, and they are fully aware of the amount of work coming their way. If policy that allows carriers to do the bare minimum in order to secure federal support continues, it will be the same contractors doing the work in a few years, when further upgrades to antiquated systems are needed. 

Therefore, PCCA’s position seems to come from a selfless vantage point. The industry fully recognizes the overwhelming amount of utility work coming its way, and the contractors doing the work want to make sure lawmakers understand the most effective way to get the job done. 

There are other issues to consider as policymakers debate how to deploy broadband across the country. PCCA is increasingly concerned with the FCC and other agencies awarding federal broadband dollars to service providers relying on unproven technologies. Producers of “low-earth-orbiting satellites,” such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, for example, are claiming they are capable of providing high-speed internet, without any real track record of success to back up their claims. 

While there have been calls from many in Congress to include requirements that all bidders on federally assisted broadband projects confirm their ability to provide the internet speeds they commit to, safeguards are needed to ensure taxpayer dollars provide the greatest return possible. 

Requiring higher speeds in order to win federal broadband dollars will encourage the use of fiber infrastructure across the country. Fiber optic is increasingly becoming the material of choice in internet deployment, and for good reason. Fiber offers significantly faster speeds over much longer distances than traditional copper-based technologies, such as DSL and cable, and is considered the most future-proof infrastructure available. Fiber allows users to transfer large amounts of data quickly and seamlessly, and data flows over great distances with little interference. 

As communities across America outgrow old copper-based infrastructure, policymakers should facilitate the process of replacing it with superior fiber networks. Raising the bar by including higher speed requirements in eligibility criteria for federal broadband funding would take a big first step in the right direction.

WYMAN ASSOCIATES offers strategic consulting with its clients and direct advocacy before the United States Congress and executive branch agencies. Working with several allies in Washington and around the country, provides clients a constant voice in the national debate.  

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