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When Building Out Broadband, Don’t Overspend on Fiber

A new report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation advises states and regions to consider a range of connectivity issues, before deciding how to best spend federal infrastructure funding on high-speed Internet.

A metal cover with "broadband" stamped on it on a hole in pavement.
States and regions moving forward with major buildouts of broadband infrastructure should avoid being too focused on just laying fiber, a new Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) report cautions.

“Areas that’ll be particularly costly to serve with few customers are a good example of what we mean by not overspending on fiber,” said Jessica Dine, an ITIF policy analyst — and the author of the new BEAD Report: Grading States’ Initial Proposals for Federal Broadband Funds.

The study advises states or regions to gain a more comprehensive understanding of why Internet connectivity in their areas may be lagging. Infrastructure, for example, may be absent due to any number of variables, from rural locations to lack of investment by Internet service providers.

But often, the reasons for homes not having Internet connectivity are related to other issues like the cost of the plan or digital literacy. All these factors must be weighed and considered when states allocate funding from the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, the report said. BEAD is a massive $42.5 billion federal initiative to fund the expansion of broadband.

The high cost of technologies like fiber, and state policies requiring this level of infrastructure, “should be set low enough, when taking the whole picture of connectivity in the state into account,” Dine said via email, arguing for a balance where “everybody can get adequate coverage, and as many of the adoption gaps as possible — low digital literacy rates, affordability, other barriers to adoption — can be addressed.”

The report makes this point clear: “In a country where some of the population is still entirely offline, it is irresponsible to push more expensive fiber coverage that is less likely to stretch to reach every community,” its analysis reads. “Every excess dollar put toward fiber where another reliable technology could suffice is a dollar less to spend on inclusion activities or addressing other barriers that consumers face.”

Indeed, this is an approach taken by some states.

“There is a clear preference from federal agencies for fiber deployment. And we certainly want to get fiber wherever we can. It’s resilient. It’s scalable,” Nate Denny, deputy secretary for broadband and digital equity at the North Carolina Department of Information Technology’s Division of Broadband and Digital Equity, said last month.

But in some locations, Denny said, fixed-wireless may be the right technology, or even low-orbit satellites.

“What we’ve said the whole time, if we want to connect every single home, if we want everyone to be able to access the modern online economy, then we need a range of technology types, and provider types,” he said.

Still, states are quick to note that fiber has a place in filling out the larger broadband ecosystem. Nevada is building a nearly 2,500-mile fiber-based middle-mile network statewide, the High Speed Nevada Initiative, which will include every county. Its Office of Science, Innovation, and Technology (OSIT) is leading the effort, in partnership with state agencies. The aim is for this middle-mile build to be the launching pad for last-mile service — which can include a range of technologies, OSIT Director Brian Mitchell said. OSIT serves as the state’s broadband office.

“So no matter what technology you use, ultimately, it has to come back to fiber,” Mitchell said in comments on the April 19 episode of the Ask Me Anything podcast, produced by Broadband Breakfast, a broadband news and policy organization. “That’s why we’re trying as much as we can to extend fiber as deeply as possible throughout our ecosystem so that it can facilitate whatever last-mile technology makes the most sense for any given location.”

Nevada, it should be noted, has wide broadband service gaps, making its decision to fill those holes with fiber more prudent. For states in the South and East, where broadband deployment is relatively consistent, it may make more sense to focus the energy on Internet adoption efforts, Dine said.

“A state with relatively few deployment gaps but a lot of other non-adoption concerns shouldn’t spend freely on universal fiber, if in doing so they’re neglecting those other concerns,” she said.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.