Mixing It Up: Communities Get Behind Hybrid Internet Systems

Fiber to the premises has been the holy grail of broadband deployment. Some smaller communities are finding that combining fiber with fixed-wireless delivery (either as an interim or permanent solution) can be more effective.

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Portions of this article are adapted from Craig Settles’ most recent “Community Broadband Snapshot Report.”

Google stunned a few communities last June with the announcement that they were taking a break from fiber deployments and considering building hybrid wired/wireless networks. Suddenly, people started to publicly question whether fiber is the Holy Grail that communities assume it to be.

Wireless in broadband has been deified, vilified, misunderstood, hyped to holy heaven, and in some circles, just plain ignored. To many, fiber can do no wrong, only become faster. Then came gig fiber. No, wait, now there’s gig wireless. Communities need a reality check!

Despite media reports after the Google announcement that anointed hybrid infrastructure the next big thing, these types of networks have been around for over a decade. But they tended to get lost as proponents of one technology or the other tried to get market dominance.

Some smaller communities have already deployed hybrid networks tailored to meet their specific needs and resources.

For example, in 2005, a group in western New York launched a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) corporation called Axcess Ontario. However, they didn’t hire employees. They created a board of directors, raised money, and retained firms with the talents needed to run a telecom business that sells dark fiber. Axcess Ontario formed a public-private partnership between Ontario County, the Ontario County Industrial Development Agency, and local businesses and carriers.

Axcess Ontario facilitates wireless and wired deployments throughout the county through dark fiber sales to carriers and businesses. There are carriers that sell services directly to businesses and individuals. “Empire Access, for example, brought fiber to the home in Naples, New York, a rural village of 2,500, after no carriers were willing to serve them,” says ECC Technology’s director of broadband services, Andy Lukasiewicz. (ECC is the private company Axcess Ontario hired to design, build, and manage their network.) Cellular carrier towers use Axcess Ontario fiber or get lit fiber from other carriers, and other providers rely on the group just for backhaul transport.

Cooperatively Owned Hybrids

Detail of Roanoke Connect's current and future network.
Detail of Roanoke Connect’s current and future network.

Roanoke Electric Cooperative covers five counties in rural North Carolina, and their electric lines may connect as few as six or seven homes per square mile. They currently have a $4 million fiber ring project known as Roanoke Connect. Their primary goal is to enhance the co-op’s electricity business. Their substations will be able to communicate better with each other, predict and manage outages, protect equipment from vandalism or theft, and proactively communicate with members.

Roanoke has started a pilot project to determine the potential success in providing broadband to individual and business members. “We are assessing if a hybrid wireless/wired infrastructure will improve the financials of our operations over the next few years,” says Curtis Wynn, the co-op’s CEO and also secretary-treasurer of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). It may not make economic sense to provide fiber to sparsely populated areas. “As we learn more about wireless technologies that potentially can deliver half a gig or more, this interests us because deploying fixed wireless is faster.”

Broadband projects present two major financial challenges for communities: raising cash for buildout costs and generating sustainable cash flow. They can’t start billing customers until the network is built, plus there is a lag between the buildout and the time when revenue can cover operating costs.

The RS Fiber co-op represents the communications interests of 10 Minnesota towns in Renville and Sibley counties and had made plans to build a fiber network. They retained an ISP, Hiawatha Broadband Communications (HBC), to build the network, oversee network operations, and marketing.

HBC split the project into two phases and focused on the towns first. Starting in mid-2015, they 1) build out the fiber ring, 2) simultaneously ran fiber to towers that held 1-gig capacity fixed wireless equipment, and 3) then built fiber to the premises. Ninety percent of the residents got 25 Megabit symmetrical wireless service by the end of 2015. Seventy had fiber by the end of 2016. Wireless allowed RS Fiber to collect $50,000-$100,000 in monthly revenue and start retiring the debt quickly.

“Too many cities waste time doing a feasibility study to determine whether they need broadband (yes, they do), or if fiber is good (not necessarily).”
Richard Frank, CEO, Madcom

Fixing the RFP Process — Getting What You Need

Marketing hype has released a tidal wave of municipal interest. Unfortunately, a lot of the requests for proposals or RFPs — the documents on which vendors base their bids to provide service — look similar to each other, both in content and intent. There is a heavy, almost exclusionary, focus on fiber. Often there is an emphasis on one business model. Industry hype promoting fiber, Google, a gig, smart cities, etc., threatens to afflict cities in a “one-size-fits-all” mentality. Cities seem to have a “build-it-and-they-will-come” philosophy.

“Communities are being advised to build ‘X’ number of towers, and lay ‘so many miles’ of fiber, or give anchor institutions to providers and they will somehow magically generate residential customers,” says Sandie Terry, vice president, broadband programs, at the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) in Virginia. Her team strongly felt that communities need a new path, so the team asked everyone to take a timeout on broadband development while they rethought the entire process.

Amelia County, Virginia, has an agricultural economy and only 5,400 homes. When the first requests for information went out, some providers said they could not financially support delivering broadband to such a small number of homes. When the county re-did the package based on Terry’s guidance, they new package included schools, libraries, and the county government as anchors. They offered middle-mile fiber built with funding secured through a federal program (Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program, or BTOP), fee waivers, dedicated logistics support, digital literacy training and a PC refurbishing program. Now they have several broadband suitors.

“Too many cities waste time doing a feasibility study to determine whether they need broadband (yes, they do), or if fiber is good (not necessarily),” says Richard Frank, CEO of MadCom, a broadband logistics planner. “They would do better by understanding their needs more thoroughly, do better job demand aggregation, and using software such as GIS automate the technology design process.”

“RFPs-by-rote” needs to stop! “I have long preached that the hybrid approach makes sense,” says Rick Harnish, director of wireless internet service provider markets for BaiCells Technologies and former executive director of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association. “Lower cost, faster deployment time, standards based equipment and network flexibility make fixed wireless the ideal hybrid partner to fiber, both now and into the future.”

Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst, consultant to local governments, and author of “Building the Gigabit City.” A copy of this month’s Community Broadband Snapshot Report on the benefits of hybrid wired/wireless networks is available for download.

 

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