Failures and triumphs on the road to broadband ubiquity

It's been an interesting year for broadband in the United States. While new networks are being built out or have already been completed and services turned up, some builds haven't even gotten off the ground. In the midst of the drive to provide high speed services to every corner of the nation, both public and private entities are struggling with disruptive elements like competition, ongoing innovation, and ever-increasing consumer demand for services that are far from ubiquitous.

Over the last few months, FierceTelecom took a closer look at a few of the ingredients in the broadband stimulus stew. We covered efforts to implement--or conversely, control or ban--municipal broadband networks. We looked at the possibility of finding and repurposing older fiber networks laid down in the 1990s and 2000s and forgotten. We looked at the federal government's mapping efforts and what their latest maps revealed about the progress of stimulus. We looked at alternative mapping sources cropping up to meet the specific needs of providers and business customers. And we looked at failures and missteps in the buildout.

Some of what we found was enlightening and opened up new possibilities in getting broadband into more homes and small businesses, particularly in rural areas. Much of it was not surprising or unknown, but some of the activities around federally-funded network buildouts are baffling and frustrating.

The falters and failures in broadband stimulus--Louisiana's loss of its $80.5 million funding last year being the biggest example thus far--are disheartening. Some are unresolved: in the past month, several local administrations in the north central Florida area, including Bradford County, the city of Perry, and Taylor County voted to drop out of the North Florida Broadband Authority. That organization's $30 million grant was reinstated in March, after addressing allegations of waste and conflicts of interest, and while the NFBA says the local governments' participation isn't integral to the project, their resignation is a clear signal of displeasure at how the middle mile network build is being managed.

Still, efforts to build truly high speed, future-proof networks are moving forward, through both nonprofit organizations as well as private companies that are staking their future profitability on network builds--not just fiber, but hybrid networks featuring coax and fiber, like those being built by MSOs like Comcast. Upgrading the capacity of copper has enabled Ethernet over Copper services to remain viable and will extend the service life of the existing copper network.

What broadband projects are seeing success? Here are three worth noting:

  • Chattanooga's EPB Fiber, a 1 Gbps fiber network serving residents, businesses and local government, is operating at a profit, chalking up $57.3 million in revenue last year.
  • Vermont Telephone is in the process of building out a hybrid wireline/wireless network that will bring 1 Gbps speeds and 4G/LTE services to 15,000 customers in the southern part of the state this year. That's in addition to its ongoing 100G deployment.
  • OneCommunity is operating a 1,400 route mile open access network in Ohio that serves public buildings and leases capacity to private providers like Tier 2 carriers--a concept that has kept the nonprofit's network infrastructure growing.

While both phases of the federal government's broadband stimulus awards have passed, more funding looks to be on the way through different paths. The FCC, for example, last week announced a $300 million funding phase as part of its new Connect America Fund, which aims to connect all Americans to broadband by 2020.

Over the next year, it will be interesting to watch the direction broadband takes in the United States. With fiber networks still an expensive proposition--Verizon halted its FiOS builds last year, for example--and demand for higher speeds on 3G and 4G devices growing, providers are looking at different network configurations. ACG Research analyst Michael Kennedy predicts that a two-tier broadband market will develop, with wireline operators slowly moving to FTTP service and wireless broadband becoming a dominant part of the market.

Stay tuned; the broadband ride isn't over yet.--Sam