Discovering Fiber's Full Potential: Broadband deployment is predicted to yield work with considerations

By Susan DeGrane | Mar 14, 2024
Discovering Fiber's Full Potential
Sean Kelly gives us his take on challenges and opportunities related to broadband deployment in the United States.
 Sean Kelly
Sean Kelly
Sean Kelly serves as technical director for Light Brigade, Kent, Wash., which provides certified fiber optic training for low-voltage contractors, electrical contractors, service providers and apprentice trainers worldwide. Kelly gave us his take on challenges and opportunities related to broadband deployment in the United States.

How are efforts to bridge the digital divide in rural areas going? How have people coped without broadband access so far?

While urban dwellers rely on remote meetings, telehealth, remote learning, streaming video content, online shopping [and] electronic bill pay, an estimated 7.1 million households do not have access to adequate minimum broadband, according to current FCC data maps. 

The reasons for this are low population density and affordability. Rolling out broadband services and infrastructure remains expensive. Back in 2002, internet service providers focused on return on investment and targeted highly populated areas likely to yield subscribers. They later moved on to affluent suburban areas where residents also were likely to subscribe.

Unfortunately, areas where homes were few and far between, and low-income areas with projected low-take rates, were left behind. Those overlooked now live in a world two decades behind places like Chicago and New York City, which provide robust broadband technology.

Rural residents can still access satellite TV through a satellite-based internet such as Elon Musk’s StarLink, DSL or other means. However, most of those services do not meet even the legacy definition of broadband connectivity of 25 Mb/s down and 3 Mb/s up, commonly referred to as 25/3.

Some people suggest using LTE or 5G devices as hotspots for higher-speed connectivity, but many rural areas have little to no cellular data coverage.

The consensus is that fiber is needed to bring the highest speed and most reliable service directly to the home. Doing this presents challenges as well as opportunities.

Is fiber practical for rural areas?

Fiber is the ideal solution for connecting rural areas because it can cover long distances without repeaters or other intermediate powering requirements. Unfortunately, fiber to the home may be viewed as cost-prohibitive in some cases.

Fixed wireless may offer an intermediate solution. Bulk fiber goes to a tower or small cell near a cluster of rural homes and provides wireless access to individual devices using 802.11 Wi-Fi or a new higher-speed cellular service to connect to a de facto router inside the home.

Many municipalities and service providers have already used fixed wireless as stage one for fiber-to-the-home deployments because it provides a base level of broadband service almost immediately. Once subscriber levels rise, providers have funding to bring fiber the rest of the way home for more reliable service.

Some worry that providers may never complete the second stage, which becomes more problematic as technology advances. Others argue that longer rollout times needed for taking fiber directly to the home might further deprive those in need because funding could run out.

What is involved in competing for federal dollars?

Recently created federal programs aimed at bridging the digital divide include the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, USDA’s ReConnect Program and others focusing on tribal connectivity and connecting minority and low-income areas. 

Most prominent is the Biden-Harris administration’s $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which allocates $65 billion to broadband. 

Of that, $48 billion is designated for broadband infrastructure build, which covers four classifications of distribution: Broadband Equity Access and Deployment with $42.5 billion, Tribal Access with $2 billion, Middle Mile with $1 billion and Digital Equity with $2.75 billion aimed at educating those in the rural areas both as broadband providers and users.

While $48 billion seems like a lot, actual buildout costs are estimated to be two to three times that. This means America’s 1,200-plus providers will have to invest their own funding to make universal connectivity a reality. Businesses and corporate campuses are not included in the federal funding because most maintain their own local area networks.

Competition for federal dollars relates to individual projects in areas identified as most needing services. Applications must be compliant with each program’s requirements. Entire projects, not just the funded parts, must adhere to stringent and sometimes challenging material origin requirements, such as 100% U.S.-­manufactured cable. 

Projects must also include established cybersecurity and cyber supply chain risk measures and other administrative compliances. Despite best application efforts, many projects might not be funded.

States will distribute funds, estimating less than 20% projected to go to actual fiber infrastructure, and 60% toward make-ready efforts such as permitting, licensing, training and utility pole modifications. Even prior to recent federal funding, many electrical co-ops created service provider sub-businesses and began providing broadband services along their own distribution lines.

Those and other independent service providers may not have the internal expertise to file permit applications, navigate the legal terrain or even handle project management and documentation.

Each nonutility provider must gain permission to attach to poles. Normally, the utility or pole owner makes the changes necessary for compliance with National Electrical Safety Code requirements, but previous repairs and unauthorized previous attachments can necessitate alteration or pole replacement. Some utilities may not be staffed for making those changes. Likewise, the provider may not possess in-house staff skilled at fusion splicing, testing or maintenance.

While these needs can cause delays, they also present opportunities for ECs. 

There may also be overlapping opportunities with grid and broadband work. The larger IIJA bill allocates $73 billion for electrical utilities to update the grid.


What are some stumbling blocks to broadband deployment?

A huge concern is securing skilled labor. The Fiber Broadband Association estimates 205,000 new technicians will be needed through 2026. The Government Accountability Office estimates 34,000 new technicians will be required in the first year of rollout. Other estimates suggest far more.

Often, technicians do not reside where they are needed, according to, which offers maps showing concentrations of technicians across the United States. Commuting costs and wage disparities will discourage many from going to where the work is.

Due to these challenges, utilities may be willing to pay contractors to bring in trained personnel.

What does training typically involve?

Fiber optic training ranges from product-specific training provided by manufacturers to broader subject courses such as those provided by NECA-IBEW, the Fiber Broadband Association, the Fiber Optic Association and Light Brigade. Light Brigade’s four-day courses cover outside and inside plant training with theory and hands-on instruction. Most involve credentialing, such as the ETA Fiber Optic Technician­-Outside Plant, which tends to be a mix of theoretical and hands-on. 

Light Brigade offers a career path of training related to OSP fiber with technician and professional­-level tracks. Our Fiber Optics 1-2-3 course covers about anything fiber related. 

For professionals, we offer certified fiber-to-the-home professional preparation. The next step on the professional track is the FTTX OSP design course, which serves as preparation for the FBA credential of the same name.

How much of this work involves burying fiber optic cable or installing it on existing utility lines? Who is most likely to take on this work?

The method for getting fiber from point A to point B will vary based on terrain, existing pathways and costs. Aerial and buried installations are both common.

Historically, pole amendments have been carried out by the pole-owning utility, but with these new services, nearly every pole in a wider area will need to be addressed. Utilities not having the resources to carry this out may outsource that work.

What do you see for fiber’s future?

Fiber is more than 50 years old, yet we are still discovering its potential. The entire globe is already connected via undersea fiber optic cable.

Traditional applications such as data centers and FTTX are rapidly increasing data rates, which enables more applications.

Single-mode fiber offers compatibility with the planned future generations of upgraded electronics.

Standard telecommunications fiber offers fiber optic sensing applicable to oil and gas, rail, seismic, intrusion detection, structural monitoring and power cable monitoring.

Another fiber-rich single-mode application is the deployment of 5G small and micro cells, as each densely distributed antenna/radio requires fiber. On the horizon, single-mode fiber is being used for connecting everything needed for smart cities that will enable virtual/augmented reality, machine learning and fully autonomous vehicles.

There are multiple versions of 5G. True 5G applications are still in their infancy, and work on the next generation is underway using existing 5G fiber infrastructure. / moon / ipolstock

About The Author

DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has covered electrical contracting, renewable energy, senior living and other industries with articles published in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and trade publications. Reach her at [email protected].





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