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Connecting the Unconnected: Strategies for Carriers to Expand Networks in Rural Areas


While technologies like 5G are making Internet service faster than ever, many rural communities still need to catch up. Not only does the digital divide continue to exist, but that divide continues to widen as technology advances.

About 38% of Americans living in rural areas lack access to reliable, high-performance broadband — 34 million people. If they have broadband, connectivity comes at a much higher cost than in urban centers. They’re often reliant on satellite or DSL connections, which are slower and less reliable, which means these communities are left behind when it comes to remote work, education, and healthcare.

Telecommunications carriers are an essential part of the solution in bridging this digital divide. But the problem isn’t a lack of interest from carriers or their customers. Conditions in many of these rural areas make it difficult and expensive to lay fiber optic cable. Despite these challenges, opportunities and solutions exist for network expansion in rural areas that will benefit carriers and customers alike.

Understanding the challenges

For last-mile carriers and Internet service providers (ISPs), one of the biggest hurdles they face is the cost of building out infrastructure over vast distances — often without pre-existing infrastructure — to service areas with low population density. It’s hard to justify the investment without the economies of scale. So, it typically means passing the costs on to customers, making broadband connectivity prohibitively expensive.

Building out this infrastructure isn’t cheap, either. The cost of laying fiber increases dramatically if you have to cross lakes, forests, and mountains. It’s also hard to maintain these networks since they’re so expansive – there isn’t always going to be a skilled technician just a quick drive away if there’s an issue. That’s why bringing broadband connectivity to rural areas has historically been cost-prohibitive for both carriers and consumers.

Technologies paving the way

Fiber optics offer high speed and reliable connectivity, though carriers often face challenges in rural deployment. A potential solution is middle-mile connectivity through dark fiber. Dark fiber is just that: a dark service. Zayo’s dark fiber solutions offer carriers complete control over their environment, without having to build or maintain the infrastructure.

“It is not a bolt-on service. It’s not something that we add on after the fact,” says Nias Battle, Senior Vice President of Zayo. “Dark fiber from the beginning of Zayo has been a key and core component of our service offering.”

Wireless technologies like 4G, 5G, and Wi-Fi can also help enhance rural connectivity. Zayo’s Ethernet service is built on expansive long-haul and metro fiber networks, providing multiple routes for customer traffic flow. Today, Zayo supports up to 400G across 85% of our IP backbone.

Zayo allows carrier customers to extend their LAN into a WAN environment, leveraging an extremely dense fiber-rich network. “I cannot overstate the value of being the underlying owner of the facilities,” says Battle. “When we offer you an Ethernet service, that Ethernet service transverses the network that we own, that we operate, that we touch, and we maintain.”

Zayo’s Wavelengths is a nice medium between a dark fiber service you manage on your own and a shared environment like Ethernet, providing customers with a greater level of control at faster speeds. Zayo’s fiber backbone – 400G-enabled on over 85% of our routes today – allows customers to scale their bandwidth as needs grow.  They can also unlock bandwidth when they need it with Waves On Demand on some of our most popular routes.

IP Transit is a carrier-grade IP service that allows customers to interconnect with Zayo both directly and through more than 350 global peering points in 400 markets. “We have approximately 35 terabytes of peering capacity and offer strong geographic coverage to allow our customers the greatest possible service at the greatest possible price,” says Battle.

Government initiatives and support

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) administers grant programs that help to deploy broadband and other technologies across the country. A 10-year investment is helping to “catalyze the development and adoption of open, interoperable, and standards-based networks” through the Public Wireless Supply Chain Innovation Fund.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is investing $65 billion to help close the digital divide, laying the groundwork for reliable, widespread, affordable broadband. Under NTIA’s Middle Mile Grant Program — part of this national effort — Zayo was awarded $92.9 million in funding to build critical middle-mile connections. The funds will be directed towards three separate projects from Zayo to bring network infrastructure to communities across eight states and more than 2,100 route miles.

Other programs monitored by NTIA include the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), State Broadband Initiative (SBI), State and Local Implementation Grant Program (SLIGP), and Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (PTFP), among others.

With the help of government funding, incentive programs, and infrastructure partners, carriers have options to help ensure equitable access to reliable Internet connections for their communities.

Embracing partnership opportunities

Carriers need to engage communities in the planning and decision-making process to understand their wants and needs. From there, creating strategic alliances with partners like Zayo can help find innovative rural connectivity solutions.

Zayo’s Preferred Carrier Program is uniquely designed for the specific needs of the carrier community, with an easy-to-understand rate card for pricing and other benefits such as contract flexibility.

A collective effort from carriers, government initiatives, and private-sector partnerships could go a long way in helping to overcome the challenges of broadband deployment and narrowing the digital divide for rural Americans.

Uncover the Middle Mile Opportunity

Find out more about how you can invest in and prioritize rural connectivity to connect the unconnected.