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Understanding the Connectivity Landscape: How the Middle Mile is Changing the Game


A surprising number of Americans lack access to reliable broadband Internet access. So why is it so difficult to connect the under-connected and build out connectivity in remote and rural areas? And why does the middle mile represent a compelling opportunity for carriers?

Many remote and rural areas across the nation are under-connected, which means that while they may have connectivity, it’s slow, spotty, and expensive, with few options (if any) to choose from. That means residents have a hard time accessing remote health, online learning, and digital government services, while local businesses struggle to grow and attract talent.

As high-bandwidth applications such as video conferencing, immersive reality, and smart home applications become the norm, under-connected areas will be increasingly left behind. Governments, schools, and hospitals are also rapidly digitizing their services, which will further widen the digital divide.

This underscores the need to urgently build out infrastructure even in the most remote parts of the country. For carriers, the middle mile could be the answer to fast, reliable, and cost-effective connectivity.

Why Copper Isn’t Cutting it

High-speed Internet is defined as having a minimum speed of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). But many remote households and businesses don’t come close to that.

Remote and rural areas often rely on DSL for connectivity, which transmits data over copper telephone lines. Speeds often don’t meet the minimum requirements under the FCC definition, particularly when multiple people are using the same connection at the same time. Plus, bad weather can interfere with the signals, resulting in spotty, unreliable connections.

Fiber optic cables, on the other hand, are up to 100 times faster than DSL, thanks to the use of ultra-thin strands of glass that carry light (rather than electricity). Fiber is also extremely reliable, even in severe weather conditions.

Yet, in remote and rural areas—with few people spread out across great distances—the cost of building broadband infrastructure is prohibitively expensive, and most ISPs and last-mile carriers rely on federal or state subsidies to make it worthwhile.

Fortunately, a federal investment of $42.45 billion through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program—part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—is helping to make it worth their while. But while the last mile tends to get the most attention, carriers may also want to consider the middle mile.

The Missing Piece for High-Speed Broadband

The middle mile, which connects local networks to the Internet backbone, is the ‘missing piece’ in remote and rural connectivity. After all, last-mile connectivity is only as good as the middle-mile connectivity behind it. In other words, if last-mile fiber is connected to copper middle-mile infrastructure, customers will still experience latency and packet loss. 

In June, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) approved nearly $1 billion for 35 middle-mile projects across 350 counties, funding 12,000 miles of fiber-optic cable that will supplement the BEAD program.

Of that funding, Zayo was awarded $92.9 million to build critical middle-mile connections that will provide broadband connectivity to those in need. This funding will be used in three separate projects, which will impact under-connected communities across eight states—encompassing more than 2,100 route miles.

For carriers, this means it will be more cost-effective to extend their last-mile connections into previously under-connected communities, addressing the most common barrier to entry. These connections are critical in getting faster, better-performing, cost-optimized Internet connectivity to under-connected homes and businesses.

Using strategically located access points, carriers can access Zayo’s IP gateways and Ethernet networks—and leverage Zayo’s SD-WAN or edge portfolio—yet still maintain control over their own network as they build out into under-connected markets.

When it comes to connecting the under-connected, much of the focus has traditionally been on building out the last mile. While that’s still important, the middle mile represents a compelling opportunity for carriers to scale their network further and faster while providing reliable, cost-effective, high-speed bandwidth for their customers.

Interested in learning more about the middle mile and how it can power your carrier’s network expansion?

Download The State of Carrier Growth 2024: The Middle Mile Opportunity to see how it can power your network growth to underserved areas.