Fiber providers see strong demand during COVID-19 pandemic

Companies that deploy fiber broadband networks are seeing increased demand for their services, as stay-at-home orders keep millions of Americans connected to family, work and school via internet. 

“We’re seeing demand up significantly right now,” said Clay Branch, director of network development at C-Spire, speaking on a webinar presented by the Fiber Broadband Association. “Obviously, demand for residential internet is up.” C-Spire serves the state of Mississippi and offers gigabit speeds through fiber deployments in select areas. Branch describes this service as “one gigabit symmetrical service” because it provides gigabit speeds on the uplink as well as the downlink.

The pandemic is highlighting the need for faster uplink speeds, according to Gary Bolton, VP of global marketing at Adtran. “Video conferences are symmetric, and on a cable network you are lucky to have a [megabit] of upstream,” he said. “The need for fiber infrastructure is greater than ever.” Bolton said that even 10 gigabit speeds, enabled by the emerging XGS-PON standard, are becoming more accessible for residential customers. It may be some time before demand ramps up for those ultra-fast speeds, but Bolton thinks the current situation will have a lasting impact on demand for broadband.

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“When we get back to “normal” it is not going to be the world we once knew,” Bolton said. “More people realize they need broadband. .... Even the last people to adopt online services are now being forced to use them.”

That’s one reason the crews that deploy fiber are considered essential workers, and many of these crews are as busy as ever. “As far as fiber deployment, we haven’t slowed down a bit,” said C-Spire’s Branch. “We’re moving as fast as we ever have. Obviously orders are coming in - residential customers, business customers, continuing to want the service.” Branch said C-Spire has hired new workers and has picked up three new projects since the start of the pandemic.

Of course, the pace of work has had to slow down in many cases. Crews typically travel separately, and sometimes they face delays in getting permission to dig, especially when it comes to digging on private property that can require consultation with a private utility-locating service. Some of these companies have told their employees to stay home. Parts and materials that fiber crews need could also be impacted by the stay-at-home orders, because some suppliers may not be classified as essential services.

Delays are also occurring when crews need to enter a customer’s home. Sometimes people agree to admit a technician who is wearing protective clothing. But even then, the technician may have to interact with the customer over FaceTime, since many people will choose to leave the room to keep their distance during the installation process.