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Overcoming Technical Challenges in Rural Network Expansion


As bandwidth requirements increase—thanks to the adoption of 5G, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence—underserved rural communities will be left even further behind in an increasingly digital world.

Many rural communities have limited connectivity—or none at all. If they do, it’s often not fast enough to support applications such as video conferencing, telehealth, and e-commerce. In some cases, even checking email is painfully slow.

Indeed, a 2021 report from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) found that 25 percent of rural areas—compared to two percent of urban areas—can’t access Internet speeds of at least 50 Mbps.

While there’s an urgent need, there are also significant challenges in building broadband infrastructure in sparsely populated areas of the country. The solution lies in public-private partnerships, accessing the middle mile, and taking advantage of resilient technologies.

Key Obstacles in Rural Connectivity 

Many rural areas lack high-speed broadband infrastructure, so they rely on slower and less reliable satellite or DSL connections—something as simple as inclement weather can weaken a satellite signal. 

But conditions in these areas also make it difficult to lay fiber optic cable, including:

1. High costs: Deploying infrastructure in areas with low population density requires last-mile carriers and Internet service providers (ISPs) to build out infrastructure over vast distances, often in areas without any pre-existing infrastructure, just to service a small number of customers. Without economies of scale, they can’t often justify the investment. And the cost to customers is also much higher, inhibiting adoption.

 2. Rugged terrain: When rugged terrain is added into the mix, those costs can skyrocket. The cost of laying fiber is much higher per mile when crossing mountains, hills, lakes, rivers, and forests. It’s also more challenging to maintain the network over time, especially if there aren’t a lot of skilled technicians in those areas to repair or maintain equipment.

3. Right-of-way issues: To cover vast tracts of rural land, carriers and ISPs will likely have to install telecommunications infrastructure on private land. This means getting permission from multiple landowners—some of whom may not be amenable to excavation or infrastructure installation on their land. In protected areas, it may not be possible to excavate if it would result in the disturbance of wildlife or ecosystems.

Bridging the gap to better connectivity

There isn’t a straightforward solution to overcoming these challenges. But a combination of solutions could help to narrow the digital divide and bring high-speed connectivity to underserved communities.

Public-private partnerships

Public-private partnerships—as well as government funding and grants—can help to overcome return-on-investment hurdles. Fortunately, there is funding available to address rural gaps in connectivity.

For example, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has earmarked $65 million for broadband investments. This builds on pre-existing programs such as the FCC’s Universal Service program and USDA’s Rural Utilities Service broadband programs.

The middle mile

Much of the broadband funding to date has focused on last-mile access. But the middle mile is getting attention lately as a viable alternative. The middle mile serves as a connector between the backbone infrastructure and the last mile.

Last-mile carriers and Internet service providers—or even rural utility co-ops working together—can partner with a middle-mile network operator to build out the last mile by piggybacking on pre-existing infrastructure.

Dark fiber

Dark fiber holds great promise in connecting the unconnected. Dark fiber refers to fiber optic cables that are ‘unlit’—in other words, they’re not being used, so they’re available to be leased out. Dark fiber is reliable, resilient, and high-performing, able to carry large amounts of data over long distances at high speeds. It also offers virtually unlimited scale.

Fiber optic cables are made from strands of glass fibers, wrapped in layers of plastic. That makes them highly weather-resistant compared to copper cables or wireless broadband networks, which require a power supply in outdoor locations and are significantly less resilient in rural areas. 

Dark fiber could be the answer for high-capacity, low-latency connections required by underserved communities—especially as 5G continues to roll out nationwide.

A win-win-win

Along with government support, dark fiber can help connect rural areas via the middle mile. Zayo already has one of the most extensive long-haul dark fiber networks in North America and Europe, spanning more than 130,000 route miles and 1,400 on-net data centers. By leveraging Zayo’s middle-mile fiber network, last-mile carriers and ISPs can provide affordable broadband to rural, remote, and underserved markets. 

Interested in learning more about middle-mile opportunities?

Download our latest eBook, The State of Carrier Growth 2024.