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Bridging the Digital Divide: Zayo’s Role in Extending Network Connectivity Through Partnerships


by Andrés Irlando, President & Chief Operating Officer


Addressing the challenges of the digital divide requires more than technology alone; it demands collaboration. At Zayo, we are committed to ensuring that underserved, unserved, rural areas, schools, and enterprises have the infrastructure they need, not just for today but for the future. Real progress in extending network connectivity can only be achieved through public-private partnerships. By forging strong partnerships we can extend reliable connectivity essential for bridging the digital divide and paving the way for economic growth and enterprise opportunities. 

Partnerships: The Backbone of Zayo’s Network Expansion and Digital Equity Efforts

Connectivity is a cornerstone of modern society, impacting economic, social, and educational opportunities. At Zayo our mission is to connect what’s next, ensuring that everyone, everywhere has access to high-speed, reliable internet. Fundamental to our approach is true partnership between the government, middle-mile providers like Zayo, local Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and key community institutions. 

Partnership with Government 

The opportunity to provide broadband connectivity to rural areas and schools would not be possible without government funding. Our commitment to help communities thrive is evidenced by our achievements.

We have successfully secured $275 million in government grants from the Office of Science, Innovation & Technology (OSIT), American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), $92.9 million in NTIA grants for network infrastructure expansion, and we are also working with the Broadband Equity and Access Deployment Program (BEAD). As the sole national provider awarded in the latest NTIA grants, Zayo is leading the construction of three projects, across eight states, designed to bring critical middle-mile network infrastructure to communities in need. All three routes will be built with Zayo’s new Digital Equity Access Network (DEAN) architecture. 

ISPs today face unique challenges. Efforts to bridge digital infrastructure gaps, especially in rural communities, are often stalled by a lack of available backhaul and the high cost of building last-mile networks. DEAN enhances rural connectivity by lowering the barrier to entry for rural ISPs to build last-mile infrastructure by providing pre-provisioned, dedicated fiber backhaul and competitive IP pricing that matches metro fiber rates. The new architecture includes multiple interconnection points pre-built into the network, making connecting to our middle-mile more affordable for ISPs.  

Each project under our partnership with Federal and State governments is a step towards digital equity: 

  • Oregon-California-Nevada (UPR): The first of three NTIA Middle-Mile Grant projects will create additional network connectivity exit ramps along the construction of Zayo’s new high-capacity fiber route. The route, spanning over 622 miles across Oregon, California, and Nevada, will enhance regional development and provide a backbone for economic growth and digital services in areas previously constrained by inadequate connectivity.
  • Dallas to Atlanta: The second NTIA Middle-Mile Grant project will create additional network connectivity exit ramps along our existing unique route that covers 822 miles between Dallas, Texas, and Atlanta, Georgia. This will allow for greater access to broadband, supporting local economies and enabling more communities to thrive digitally throughout the Southern Corridor.
  • Dallas to El Paso: The third NTIA Middle-Mile Grant project is the construction of a high-capacity, middle-mile fiber route stretching over 644 miles from Dallas to El Paso. This route will bring critical broadband to some of the most rural areas in Western Texas, which will support local businesses and educational facilities.
  • Nevada Long Haul (I-80 to I-93 to I-15): Our partnership with the State of Nevada, backed by $152 million in funding from NTIA and State Treasury Funds, has led to the construction and maintenance of two critical long-haul dark fiber routes totaling 815 miles. These routes enhance the digital infrastructure along Interstate 80 and across Interstate 15 and US Route 93, expanding last-mile services to unserved and underserved communities and community institutions like schools, healthcare providers, and public safety agencies.

Collaboration with ISPs

Our partnerships with ISPs are central to transforming how rural communities access the internet. Working with ISPs is about more than just building networks; it’s about crafting collaborative solutions that support the needs of the communities they serve. For example:

  • PEAK Internet: Oregon-based PEAK Internet extended broadband to 350 K-12 students and their families, a testament to what can be achieved with collaboration efforts and modern infrastructure. 

Through initiatives like our Government Stimulus Program, we assist ISPs in leveraging government funding opportunities, particularly the BEAD program. Our Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Alliance (zBIDA) provides end-to-end support for ISPs to leverage federal and state stimulus funds. This initiative ensures successful partnerships and last-mile project execution.

  • Comprehensive Support: Zayo offers comprehensive support to ISPs, helping them access, apply for, and utilize federal and state funds for successful partnerships and last-mile project execution.
  • Recruitment of Preferred ISP Partners: Through zBIDA, we recruit preferred ISP partners for joint construction projects based on funding allocated to Zayo as a sub-recipient supporting BEAD applications.

The zBIDA program is set to profoundly impact both middle-mile and last-mile network expansion, enabling ISPs to capitalize on Zayo’s network and middle-mile expertise. This collaboration maximizes the strengths of us and our ISP partners, ensuring efficient and extensive network coverage.

Rural Engagement with Community (Educational) Institutions

As the largest independent service provider for the FCC’s E-Rate program, Zayo, including the acquired Education Networks of America, has been an integral player since the program’s inception in 1998. Over the years, we’ve facilitated more than $1 billion in E-Rate funding, connecting over 19,000 K-12 educational institutions. Our tailored high-speed fiber connectivity, cybersecurity, and communication solutions are designed to meet the unique needs of schools, significantly impacting educational equity, ensuring students and educators in remote areas have the resources they need for success and do not miss out on basic educational experiences.

Recent examples that demonstrate the breadth of our E-Rate program successes include:

  • Shelby County: Shelby County Schools selected Zayo for network modernization to enhance digital learning access. We overhauled the district’s network infrastructure, significantly reducing internet outages and bolstering cybersecurity with state-of-the-art solutions, thus ensuring that students and educators have reliable access to educational resources.
  • Pinal County: Pinal County faced significant disparities in broadband access, especially highlighted during the pandemic when remote learning became necessary. Pinal County partnered with Zayo to upgrade its network infrastructure. This involved deploying over 320 miles of fiber across challenging terrains to connect schools and community institutions, effectively reducing connectivity gaps. This initiative not only bolstered cybersecurity defenses against increasing cyber threats but also enhanced the overall educational and economic landscape by providing robust, reliable internet access. 

Economic Impact of Broadband Investments

The rapid shift towards remote and hybrid work, the demand for high-capacity, reliable internet, and enterprises’ focus on providing personalized, unique, and omnichannel experiences, underscores the importance of reliable connectivity in all areas of the United States. 

The projects led by Zayo not only bridge the digital divide but also act as a catalyst for profound economic transformation in previously underserved regions. These investments provide essential internet access and open new opportunities for commercial purposes. Given the growing needs of hyperscalers, we are seeing increased interest in building data centers in rural areas, where the abundance of space and cost-effective power create an ideal environment for these facilities. However, the operation of such data centers hinges on access to high-bandwidth connectivity —and substantial amounts of it. With the new middle-mile infrastructure we are not only bringing in high-speed internet but we can then cost-effectively extend our fiber and 400G-enabled wavelength solutions to provide data centers, manufacturers, enterprises, and government entities with reliable connectivity and substantial capacity to run their business. 

This extensive broadband infrastructure then becomes a critical factor in attracting a diverse array of enterprises, from emerging tech startups to established corporations. Once overlooked areas could become attractive business hubs, stimulating local job creation and promoting broad economic development. 

Conclusion: Strengthening Partnerships for a Connected Future

True progress in bridging the digital divide is not a solo endeavor but a collective effort. As a leading middle-mile provider, Zayo plays a pivotal role in working with the government and local ISPs to enable last-mile connectivity to communities. With the ongoing support of government funding and partnerships, we can continue to build a fully connected nation where every community, regardless of its economic status or geographic location, has reliable and affordable internet access.

Learn more about Zayo’s efforts to bridge the digital divide.

This communication was prepared by Zayo Group using funds under awards 08-40-MM228, 08-40-MM216, 08-40-MM217, and 23-40-MM339 from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC). The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NTIA or DOC.

About the Author

by Andrés Irlando

President & Chief Operating Officer

Bridging the Digital Divide

Learn more about Zayo’s efforts to bridge the digital divide.