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It’s Time B2B Infrastructure Providers Address America’s Broadband Affordability Crisis 

Blog

by Bill Long, Chief Product and Strategy Officer

Availability is not the only factor B2B middle-mile infrastructure providers must prioritize when building modern broadband networks. Affordability is equally important to the infrastructure that underpins America’s connectivity.

The importance of the Internet cannot be emphasized enough. Recent data suggests that 42 million Americans still lack access to reliable internet infrastructure at home, with significant disparities based on income: nearly half of adults from households earning under $30,000 a year lack home broadband. Similar trends emerge when considering location, disability status, and other factors, all exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The ongoing lack of access severely impacts the education, health, public safety, and economic opportunities of Americans living in underserved and unserved areas.

While the availability of Internet infrastructure is crucial, what’s often overlooked are the persistent barriers that have led to an even more concerning issue. Christian Rojas, professor of Resource Economics at UMass Amherst, has found that affordability – not availability – is the primary barrier to today’s disparities in broadband connectivity in America.

To fully realize the potential of the Internet, we must not only tackle the availability of the underlying infrastructure – we need to start addressing the affordability challenge as well.

Understanding the scope of this challenge requires us to look beneath the surface

The historical narrative suggests that unserved and underserved communities lack network availability: whether or not there is network infrastructure present and operational in their community. While this is true, it does not tell the whole story. Today, 7.1 million households do not have broadband infrastructure available to them. But a staggering 18 million households remain offline because they simply cannot afford to connect. That is 47 million people who cannot connect to the internet.

So where do we go from here? First, we need to understand the context and challenges in meeting connectivity goals. And that starts with a look from the ground up, with the physical fiber pipes in the ground, also known as long-haul, middle-mile, and last-mile.

The role of America’s middle-mile network is critical: it’s the vital link between long-haul and last-mile networks. The problem is that it’s often accompanied by coverage gaps. The network’s reach may not always extend to areas where it’s most needed, and connecting to last-mile infrastructure—directly serving homes and businesses—can prove challenging and costly. 

Availability and affordability intersect in two significant ways:

First, there’s the high cost of building new infrastructure to address broadband availability issues directly. Extending broadband middle-mile infrastructure to historically underserved and unserved areas is expensive – from the basic cost of materials to labor and ongoing maintenance costs.

Second, in areas with limited infrastructure, customers face significant financial burdens, especially when Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have fewer last-mile options to offer. Gaps between middle-mile infrastructure and local ISP-managed last-mile connections, along with limited on and off ramps, drive up the cost of Internet packages. The problem worsens in sparsely populated regions lacking large enterprises to justify the economic model of the initial infrastructure build. Conversely, the lack of robust broadband infrastructure also deters large enterprises from establishing themselves in these locations. This vicious cycle results in higher per-capita broadband costs that remain high without competitive pressures to lower prices. 

Adding to this, in communities lacking adequate connectivity, businesses often monopolize the available fiber and cable resources. This results in limited and costlier connection options for the average household.

Joseph Franell, president of Blue Mountain Networks (BMN), an Oregon-based ISP serving 70 rural communities, notes cost has long been a significant barrier in deploying broadband into remote areas. For example, just five years ago, the price for a megabyte of data was vastly different across Oregon: 10 cents in Portland, $2.47 in Hermiston, three hours east of Portland, and a whopping $10 in John Day, another three hours south of Hermiston. This disparity in Internet costs continues to grow, disproportionately impacting rural residents who face soaring broadband prices that are often unaffordable. 

Case in point: Over 95% of the U.S. population has the capability to connect to the Internet, but only seven in 10 households do so. 

To truly achieve universal Internet access in the United States, we must address infrastructure availability and affordability together. Our approach must be more integrated and cost-effective than previous efforts – one that is embedded into the foundational infrastructure that underpins America’s connectivity.

What the Internet affordability crisis means to real Americans, and why we need to look beyond subsidies 

Until now, support to bridge broadband affordability gaps has largely come from state and federal entities, such as government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and private companies. For example, the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) has provided qualifying households a benefit of up to $30 per month. Similarly, B2C telecom companies like AT&T’s $10 Internet Program offer discount programs. 

These measures fall short as long-term solutions. In May 2024, the ACP began to wind down its support due to a lack of funding. While lawmakers are on the case, there’s no guarantee we’ll arrive at a solution that works for everyone. 

Consider the town of Mitchell, Oregon. Franell explains that while BMN provides Internet infrastructure within the community, providing consistent high-speed connectivity to the rest of the world is nearly impossible. This is because this town relies on a point-to-point wireless connection to link with external networks. This is the equivalent of a 4G broadband connection, which, compared to fiber, is a less optimal service as it is transmitted through the air, making it less reliable. It’s a more cost-effective way to connect than fiber infrastructure, but what are the implications for the residents of Mitchell? 

It means in severe weather, residents may find themselves cut off from the rest of the world – including emergency and public safety services – since microwave signals are highly susceptible to environmental conditions. 

It means students without reliable high-speed Internet access face a severe learning disadvantage, missing out on basic educational experiences and reducing their future employment opportunities. 

It means farmers, without reliable Internet access, struggle to obtain real-time information on weather and market prices and miss out on advanced technologies such as precision farming. This not only leads to suboptimal decision-making and reduced productivity but their livelihoods – and the nation’s food supply – are negatively impacted. 

The problem at hand demands a more innovative answer, one that goes beyond reliance on temporary subsidies, one that rearchitects the broadband infrastructure system from the ground up, and one that keeps in mind the very people it aims to serve

Franell was clear: “Fiber is the gold standard.” 

We have the technology to do better and no longer live in a world where some households can access 1.2G of Internet, while the entire town gets only 1G.

At Zayo, we’re doing our part to ensure all Americans have affordable access to reliable Internet services

We’ve been thinking about the role we play in tackling both broadband availability and affordability. Previously, efforts to address both were hindered by a lack of financial incentives and the complexities of collaborating with local service providers. But the tides are changing. Both federal and state initiatives now support this level of network evolution. 

As the only national provider to be awarded funding from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Middle Mile Grant Program, we’re taking action to enable digital equity in a way no other long-haul provider has done in the United States. 

The network infrastructure we create today must be up to the task of meeting ISP and end-user needs today and years from now — otherwise, we’ll end up back in the exact scenario we currently face. This future hinges on ISPs being interconnected at access points along middle-mile routes, without needing to pay for costly fiber pairs back to the middle-mile. 

This has led us to think differently about how we construct new and future rural middle-mile fiber builds. Introducing Zayo’s Digital Equity Access Network (DEAN), designed to: 

  • Increase rural access points, reducing the need for extensive fiber construction to connect to our middle-mile network.
  • Extend metropolitan pricing into rural areas by offering ISPs pre-provisioned, dedicated fiber backhaul.

Significantly increasing access points across our network will reduce the need for extensive fiber construction, making costs in rural communities more comparable to those in major cities and alleviating the burden of high access costs. By lowering these barriers and constructing last-mile services with a plug-and-play architecture that emphasizes efficient connectivity and flexibility, we hope to create a more competitive environment in underserved and unserved areas. 

Joseph Franell commented on the transformative nature of our model: “The pricing has to make sense for the local service provider business model or we fail collectively. That’s why this new model that Zayo has embraced is super exciting. To enable connectivity in some of these rural and remote communities is astounding. It’s unlike anything that any other provider is doing as far as I am aware. My congrats to Zayo for thinking big and out of the box.”

What’s next in our mission to address the broadband affordability crisis 

As we embark on this ambitious journey to embed affordability into the very infrastructure that underpins America’s connectivity, we are constructing our three NTIA-funded middle-mile routes differently: 

  • Oregon, California, and Nevada route: Building over 600 route miles, extending the middle-mile to better connect households, businesses, schools, and other community institutions in rural communities. 
  • El Paso to Dallas route: Constructing over 600 route miles to connect El Paso to Dallas, a region lacking similar fiber network options. 
  • Dallas, Texas to Atlanta, Georgia route: Enhancing this existing unique route, which spans over 800 miles, by adding many exit ramps. 
b2b middle mile maps

In total, that’s over 2,000 route miles of affordable, accessible middle-mile infrastructure featuring the essential access points and pre-provisioned fiber aimed at equalizing cost structure and extending connectivity into underserved and unserved communities that are too often overlooked. 

What’s your role in ensuring the Internet is accessible for all Americans?

We stand at a pivotal moment in time as we work to eliminate the digital divide in our country. As such, we must look forward and act with urgency. The challenges of broadband availability and affordability require immediate action and a sustainable vision for the future. Zayo’s mission is to connect what’s next – and that means for everyone.

At Zayo, we’re committed to navigating the complexities of connecting middle-mile infrastructure to all American communities, and that starts with our Digital Equity Access Network. Through our Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Alliance program (zBIDA), we provide end-to-end support for ISPs to leverage federal and state stimulus funds, ensuring successful partnerships and last-mile project execution. We invite industry leaders, tech innovators, and community advocates to collaborate with us in pioneering the future of reliable – and affordable – broadband networks. 

This communication was prepared by Zayo Group using funds under awards 08-40-MM228, 08-40-MM216, and 08-40-MM217 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 Bill Long

Chief Product and Strategy Officer

Bridging the Digital Divide

Learn more about our DEAN and zBIDA initiatives and explore how we can partner to achieve greater digital equity together.