Service providers aren't the only ones getting into the ‘middle mile' act, however.
Taking the tack that sometimes when you want to do something right, you have to do it yourself, a number of U.S. states currently have submitted broadband stimulus applications to build middle mile networks to serve not only their internal needs, but also other smaller last mile service providers.
Massachusetts and North Carolina offer two clear instances of this trend.
In Massachusetts Verizon said it would not extend FiOS and other optical-based services to remote areas such as Massachusetts' Cape Cod, Islands and Southeastern Massachusetts, so a group decided to take matters into its own hands to build its own open access, middle mile network.
Open Cape, a non-profit initiative developed to build a regional network to serve Cape Cod, the Islands and Southeastern Massachusetts, wants to build a hybrid optical fiber and microwave network. The network will consist of a core fiber backbone with lateral extensions to two major network connection points, various optical laterals, a transport system, a microwave radio overlay and a colocation center.
However, OpenCape is not going it alone. After its own exhaustive bidding process, the company will be working with RCN Metro, which will build and operate the network.
Open Cape has applied for $40 million in broadband funding, and it also has secured $8 million in matching funds from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute ($5 million), RCN Metro Optical Networks ($2 million), and Barnstable County ($1 million).
The Microelectronics Center of North Carolina (MCNC) found a similar experience with its area incumbent operators. Since 1985 MCNC has been the network provider to the North Carolina Research and Education Network (NCREN), which provides services to K-12 schools and colleges.
In building out the rural pieces of its network, MCNC leveraged short IRU dark fiber lease connections from typical service providers, including Qwest, Level 3 and specialty middle mile providers such as Palmettonet. But as it went to the incumbents and even national middle mile providers for dark fiber access to accommodate its growth, it was turned away. MCNC's problem was further acerbated when MCNC added every K-12 school in North Carolina to the NCREN network.
"As we started to go to the traditional providers and the national middle and ask for dark fiber access as our endpoints in education and traffic demands increased, we said that over time we're going to need dark fiber and provision our bandwidth for education only," said Joe Freddoso, President and CEO of MCNC. "The answer we got back was that there was limited supply of dark fiber in these areas, and they would not IRU it for us."
But MCNC found a new possible hope last year in the incoming Obama administration's stimulus programs. With those challenges in hand, MCNC decided to take a two-pronged public and private network strategy that would both satisfy its education network and address some of the underserved broadband communities.
For education, government, and health care, or what BTOP defines as anchor institutions, MCNC will provide necessary middle mile connections itself. Then, MCNC is partnering with utility telco provider Palmettonet to connect the middle mile network to other rural providers.
"When the Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) came out in July, we were ready to recruit that private partner and had a private meeting with our private providers, and Palmettonet stepped up to the plate and said it would be a co-investor," Freddoso said.
The fit with Palmettonet makes sense, as it is a consortium owned by 20 last mile providers in North and South Carolina.
Working with Palmettonet, MCNC has submitted a $39.9 million bid for the first round of broadband stimulus funding. With this funding, MCNC says it will build a 500 to 600-mile fiber middle mile network to not only enhance NCREN, but also to augment connectivity to service providers in underserved areas and to improve health care initiatives. In their proposal Palmettonet and MCNC said they would build two fiber conduits: one to remain empty for future growth and one that would have 48 fiber strands in it to accommodate both Palmetto's and MCNC's needs.
Whatever the role a state or service provider will play, the hope is these networks will bring more advanced services to small towns that have had limited broadband access.