Extending broadband access has to be the baseline effort to close the digital divide in whatever form it takes, so that the most basic question of, “Is broadband internet service available?” can be answered with a “yes.”
The funding that is pouring into broadband by and large focuses on providing sufficient subsidies so that network build-out becomes financially feasible when it otherwise would not be. But in the end, that might be one of the easier problems to solve—and money for infrastructure doesn’t necessarily address all of the hurdles involved in actually connecting every American. Some of the challenges include:
–Understanding program requirements to get the necessary funding. There are always bureaucratic hoops to jump through to receive taxpayer dollars, both in proving that they are necessary and that the recipient will make the most efficient use of them to actually provide the promised service. But Dave Stehlin, CEO of the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), says that for the $42 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program in particular, there are requirements that have never been part of previous, similar programs: Cyber and supply chain security requirements, for instance, that tie into executive orders or work by the National Institute of Standards and Technology; or requirements to build climate-related resiliency into new infrastructure deployments. Stehlin said TIA has heard from ISPs both large and small that they need help understanding the stipulations that Congress has placed on the BEAD funding; the organization is planning a two-day, in-person event in late April, with state and federal representatives as well as network operators and vendors, to collaboratively hash out how to bring BEAD to fruition. “Nobody wants to waste $42 billion,” says Stehlin. And with rising inflation, he points out, “the longer we wait to make this happen, the less value that $42 billion has. So how do we get this thing up and running as fast as possible?”
–Supply chain issues. Stehlin recently toured expanding fiber facilities in North Carolina, and says that the capacity upgrades being made to such facilities make him confident that fiber availability won’t be a bottleneck to deployments. He sees a bigger challenge in the lack of U.S.-based semiconductor components and manufacturing capability and capacity, something that last year’s CHIPS and Science Act was supposed to address with tens of billions of dollars in incentives and tax breaks to build up American semiconductor manufacturing. Indeed, several chip manufacturers such as Intel, Micron and Qualcomm and GlobalFoundries have already announced new plants or expansions of existing facilities. But those can take years to be up and running, and Stehlin says that semiconductors make up between 45-75% of the bill of materials for a fiber broadband deployment—meaning, he says, that a waiver for requirements on buying American-made products is going to have to come into play for at least near-term federal funding for network builds.
–Workforce. There may be plenty of funding at the ready, but if there aren’t enough skilled workers, networks still won’t be deployed quickly. Both wireline and wireless industry groups have been sounding the alarm for several years that there aren’t enough installers, tower climbers, fiber technicians and other crucial workers available to support the deployment of fiber and 5G. While community colleges, apprenticeship programs and training programs are working to fill the gap, it still looms. A report published this month that looked at a single state, Maine, and its broadband workforce and strategy, said that the state faces “significant workforce gaps which are likely to impede investment and development of … broadband network[s].” Maine is already projected to have a shortfall of 3,240 workers in the top broadband occupations (half of which are related to physical construction, installation or maintenance of networks) even without additional investment in broadband. More broadband funding actually makes the problem worse: With another $100 million in broadband funding (the minimum of what Maine will get from BEAD, with zero private investment), the shortfall increases to 3,624 workers. If Maine were to garner $350 million in broadband investment, the gap widens to 4,531 workers. And that’s just a snapshot of one state.
–Scaling. Gary Bolton, president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association, believes there won’t be a fiber bubble, but a sustained investment cycle due both to the cadence of programs and also because the industry simply can only consume so much capital at a time. Still, the scale of deployment ahead is significant: He expects more fiber to be deployed in the next five years than has been deployed in history so far.
Meanwhile, on the wireless broadband side, one of the cases for choosing to deploy 5G is the ability to connect people both with fixed and mobile broadband, points out Peter Linder, head of 5G marketing for Ericsson North America. The customer growth in Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) connections that T-Mobile US and Verizon in particular, saw during the course of 2022 has prompted some more serious consideration of the role that FWA will play in broadband deployments, he adds. “If you’re going to say, ‘We are going to dig ourselves out of the digital divide’ [by deploying fiber] and see that as the only mission, it’s a steeper mountain to climb than if you would leverage the wireless infrastructure as well,” Linder continues. Linder says that as more midband spectrum comes online across the U.S., that opens up the opportunity for 5G FWA to scale up even further. Ultimately, he sees three factors intersecting to determine the scale of FWA: Innovation and economies of scale on the terminal side offering even better customer experience at a lower prize; the depth of midband spectrum and massive MIMO deployment for coverage and capacity; and the extent to which “pure” FWA use cases evolve from, say, a utility deploying FWA for its own connectivity purposes, to serving external end-users and potentially adding mobile connectivity as well.
But scaling a network doesn’t only mean adding on to the access network, whether wired or wireless. Operators also have to think about a myriad of other systems, from customer care to OSS/BSS to network security and basic networking—and some of those things can sneak up on providers.
“For different ISPs that are expanding their networks, when they add subscribers or they add a lot more traffic or are planning to in their future with [federal or private] funding … they have to make changes to their core network as well,” says Terry Young, director of 5G and service provider marketing at A10 Networks. That can be to augment capacity, but also because due to past budget constraints, ISPs may simply not have had the ability to make upgrades or architectures changes that they would have liked to. “[They have to] make sure that the network they’re building, with the immediate rush of excitement and funding that they’re getting, will be future-proof, for future growth as well,” Young said. “There’s a lot of money that goes into building the access, and as a percentage of budget, there’s not as much for the core network, and there’s not as much publicity around it.”
Young said that scaling can be particularly challenging for the small broadband providers who tend to serve rural and remote communities. Adding 10,000 customers may not be a big deal for a network operator with millions of customers—but for an ISP with 5,000 customers, that means tripling its user base. “There are a lot of wireless ISPs that are pretty small, under 2,000 subscribers, and they are walking into carrier-grade expectations that they really didn’t have to meet in the past,” she says. Suddenly, providers may find themselves scrambling to scale up firewalls for new and potentially vulnerable connections, such as crucial rural healthcare facilities; or, for enough IP addresses for new customers, especially when small companies have to compete with the likes of web-scale giants AWS, Alibaba and Tencent for the dwindling supply of IPV4 addresses.
“These capabilities that you’re building into your data center and your core network, your cybersecurity and your carrier-grade networking, are key capabilities that will make a difference in your subscriber availability, long term, as well as your ability to grow in a cost-effective manner,” Young says.