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Broadband stimulus: Where do fiber, wire options fit?

New backbones, fiber-to-the-home could work hand-in-hand with wireless solutions to connect more of America

By Brad Reed, Network World
March 13, 2009 10:00 AM ET

Network World - When it comes to bringing broadband to underserved areas of the United States, there is a general consensus that wireless technologies such as 802.11y, WiMAX and Long Term Evolution (LTE) will be crucial to getting people connected. However, many experts and service providers say that fiber infrastructure could be a big a piece of the puzzle as well.

Any discussion of building more fiber infrastructure to expand broadband access has to start with creating more backbone capacity in rural areas, as both wireline and wireless operators need backbone access in order to operate high-speed services. Essentially, backbones are clusters of fiber-optic trunk lines that small ISPs buy bandwidth from to connect their users to the Web. The trouble that many rural ISPs have is that they are located farther away from backbones' points of presence (PoP), which are typically located in major population centers. Thus, they have to pay more money for backbone access than ISPs located in more populated areas.

To rectify this, some small rural ISPs are considering banding together to create their own local backbones. Matthew Polka, the president of the independent service provider industry group the American Cable Association, says many of his members are interested in using stimulus funds to construct backbone infrastructure that will lessen their reliance upon big incumbent carriers.

"Our members are chiefly concerned with building the fiber backbone deeper into rural America," he says. "That way they can increase their service speed and lower the costs of broadband connectivity."

Harold Feld, the senior vice president for the open media advocacy group Media Access Project, says providing funds to have several rural ISPs work together to make a native backbone would be a smart strategy because it would benefit several small ISPs rather than the few large telecom carriers.

"If I were the NTIA [National Telecommunications and Information Administration], I'd encourage people to put in a cluster of grants that center around one large project," he says. "I'd be encouraging people to think of this not as a zero-sum game but as a cooperative game… the way to think about it is, 'You have a fiber connection and I have a fiber connection so let's get together to build a backbone.'"

In addition to building fiber backbones in rural areas, some ISPs also think that subsidizing fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) connections would be feasible for certain rural areas that have relatively high population densities. Patrick Knorr, the COO of cable and broadband provider Sunflower Broadband, says there are some suburban communities in his vicinity that have been sprouting up in rural areas that would have enough population density to justify building out FTTH infrastructure.

"Fiber to the home, like a lot of wire-based solutions, is cost intensive," he says. "But it is cheaper than DSL or coaxial cables. Fiber works better over long distances because it doesn't require as much maintenance as a lot of other technologies. The issue is that there is a significant initial infrastructure cost, which is why there should be opportunities for subsidies to build FTTH in areas that otherwise wouldn't be able to access fiber service."

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