Broadband stimulus: An enabler, not a panacea

As the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) gets set to pore over a new set of broadband stimulus funding applications, the focus in the second round will be on middle mile networks that will carry last mile traffic to Internet hubs and provide connectivity to schools, hospitals, etc. At the same time, both the NTIA and RUS (which will focus the second round of funding on last mile projects) also have the daunting task of sending out rejection letters to those entities that won't be getting funding.

Like everything else I have seen in the telecom industry over the past almost 12 years (this July), the middle mile idea, while only coined fairly recently, has really existed as a concept for decades. First, there are the telephone cooperatives that banded their resources together in particular regions to build sometimes statewide networks to support everything from basic LD voice, legacy data (Frame Relay/ATM), video and increasingly optical and next-gen IP connectivity. Iowa Network Services (INS), South Dakota Network (SDN), and more recently Independent Optical Networks (ION), which just won a $39.7 million broadband grant, come to mind in this category.

Similarly, Research and Education providers MCNC, Merit Networks and Internet2 have separately focused their attention on providing network connectivity to colleges and even local high schools and elementary schools. Internet2 now wants to break out of its R&E shell by extending  its network expertise to community anchor institutions by creating what it calls a "Unified Community Anchor Network."

Lastly, there's the traditional network wholesalers (Level 3 and 360 Networks) who interestingly built long-haul networks that passed through rural towns, they never could sell to the smaller carriers that resided along these paths because the expense to connect to them just could not be justified. But with broadband stimulus monies in hand, these service providers would simply extend connections from their existing regeneration huts to connect to smaller carriers with more affordable connectivity.   

Likewise, providing connectivity to schools, hospitals and libraries is no less important. Still, despite the progress made in North Carolina (MCNC) and New York's Westchester County telecom network, connectivity for schools in other states such as New Hampshire continues to be, well, woeful.

I found out this reality first hand when I headed up north to Nashua to visit managed service provider Destek. A major focus for Destek is to provide managed services to schools in New Hampshire. The connectivity issue is not technological, but rather financial. And while it would be great if Nashua and the other towns that the company serves had the benefit of a fiber-based middle mile network built by FairPoint or a group of smaller towns, what will continue to hold back these areas is just the sheer cost of building a network to serve what are very remote areas.

"The ideal solution would be to bring fiber to every school, but it costs $10,000 a mile to install fiber," said Brian Susnock, President of Destek. "Some of these schools in these rural areas of New Hampshire are sometimes set back two miles into the woods and it's awfully difficult for them to raise that kind of money."

To overcome these shortcomings, Destek has found creative ways to allocate greater bandwidth over existing copper facilities via bonding T1s it rents from FairPoint Communications and wrapping that connection with good old customer service and 24x7 tech support.

Even as middle mile networks go up, I do agree there's no promise that we'll see a torrent of last mile network investments. What's worse, a middle mile network won't do much if students don't have the broadband connections at home to connect to the schools or other interactive applications.  

While the Obama administration had the right intentions, these issues illustrate the reality that broadband stimulus will be an enabler for those entities that win funding, but not a panacea. --Sean