Make the Broadband Connection: Electrical utilities’ role in delivering rural broadband

Shutterstock / Amy Johansson
Shutterstock / Amy Johansson
Published On
Nov 15, 2021

Last month, I described the long-time use of fiber optics by electrical utilities for communications and grid management. Now, let’s look at current events and see how this long history with fiber might solve the rural broadband problem.

The pandemic has demonstrated broadband’s power and necessity. Many people who could began working from home, students took classes by video conferencing and people were ordering everything online, including groceries. But many people learned that their internet was inadequate, especially in rural areas.

I conducted research to try and understand rural broadband issues. It seemed to me that the problem with broadband reaching rural areas must be similar to issues with getting electrical service to those areas a century ago. In my research, I found “Rural Electrification,” an article from the 1940 “Yearbook of Agriculture,” written by Robert T. Beall, an economist at the Rural Electrification Administration.

According to Beall, in 1925 only 3.2% of America’s 6.3 million farms had electricity. By 1935, it had only grown to 10.9%, due to the Great Depression and the inherent problem with rural areas: economics. Beall’s article quotes a report on the problem:

“After a careful study of the rural electrification problem, the Mississippi Valley Committee reported, in October 1934, that—several reasons might be advanced to explain why only 10% of the Nation’s farms purchase electricity. These are the lack of interest by operating companies in rural electrification, high cost of line construction because of the unnecessarily expensive type of line used, onerous restrictions covering rural line extensions, and high rates.”

“Inasmuch as the private utility companies own and control well over 90% of the electric-power industry in the United States, the extension of lines into rural areas prior to 1935 depended primarily on the willingness of these companies to serve farmers,” Beall wrote. “The industry generally felt no responsibility to find out whether construction in rural areas might not be simpler and less expensive than that in urban centers and therefore require less capital investment per farm.”

I learned that by 1940, 25% of rural farms had electricity. What happened in that short span of five years? During the Depression, rural electrification was specifically included in the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration by Executive Order No. 7037 on May 11, 1935.

The effect of government incentives was felt rapidly. Much of the expansion was done by nonprofit cooperatives, a new type of utility created by farmers who discovered that they could organize and get assistance in building their own electrical companies.

Co-ops also learned how to lower costs for building networks by simplifying aerial cable systems and using long-span construction. Some of their techniques allowed building networks at less than half the cost of traditional urban/suburban networks.

As I read this, I realized you could replace electrical references with broadband, and it would make perfect sense for today. In fact, that is true of almost the whole report.

The government seems ready to appropriate money directed to broadband as part of an infrastructure package. Rural electrical systems and co-ops are well positioned to build these networks. They already have the rights-of-way, and many workers are already familiar with fiber optics. And there are fiber optic technologies that can simplify building networks and reduce costs.

Some rural electrical systems already have fiber that can be used for broadband, even fiber to the home, requiring just that the connection to users be completed. Building new or expanding current fiber networks is simplified by fiber technologies, especially all-dielectric self-supporting cable for long rural links.

I have recently become aware of a new product that could make a big impact: remote gigabit passive optical network (GPON) optical line terminals (OLT) for fiber to the home. Most GPON equipment is designed for central offices or head ends, but these remote OLTs are small enough to hang on a utility pole and easy to connect. They are daisy-chained on fiber for covering long distances and simply dropping connections for small local service areas, such as a small town or cluster of farms.

Electrical utilities are not the only option for rural connections: rural telecommunications companies, especially co-ops, have some of the same advantages. Between the two, they should be able to use available funding to make the rural broadband connection.

About the Author

Jim Hayes

Fiber Optics Columnist and Contributing Editor

Jim Hayes is a VDV writer and trainer and the president of The Fiber Optic Association. Find him at www.JimHayes.com.

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