If there’s one thing the Covid pandemic has made very clear, high-speed broadband is today’s economic driver. It powers telemedicine, remote learning, entertainment, smart agriculture, and connects people to their jobs remotely. It contributes to a higher quality-of-life, greater property values, and enables participation in a data-driven economy.
So, it’s no wonder that broadband is becoming increasingly attractive to electric utilities and co-ops, especially those operating in more rural areas, where they are uniquely positioned to deploy fiber connectivity. Utilities either own or have access to certain infrastructure, have a ready customer base, and face a fairly open road as privately-owned telecom has generally shied away from rural areas due to the cost of deployment and what they perceive to be insufficient ROI.
Rural areas have electricity, but they’re often lacking in modern digital infrastructure. According to a 2018 Microsoft study, more than half of the United States lacks access to high-speed broadband service, a number that’s disproportionately higher in rural areas. This echoes what happened in 1930s America, when most of the country’s rural areas lacked electricity because private electric companies could not justify providing services to sparsely populated communities. This made farming difficult and prevented economic diversification, as it was hard to attract manufacturing and business to these areas. It also spawned the growth of public utilities and rural electric cooperatives.Plan Right
So, here we are again, only this time, it’s not about power; it’s about broadband connectivity. It’s an optimum time. But for utilities considering taking the big broadband step, some careful planning is key.
It may seem daunting for an electric utility to mount a fiber-broadband project, but I’ve got some advice that will help smooth the process. My company, Biarri Networks, a global telecom engineering company that’s working with several utilities throughout the the United States, can confirm that rural areas of the United States can be some of the most complex places to build broadband networks in the world. The topography can be tricky, existing infrastructure can be lacking, and there’s not a lot of population density, making broadband projects tough to pencil. So, electric utilities need to have a smart plan in place to ensure their broadband project’s feasibility.
Through our work, we’ve identified five key things that electric utilities should know before starting a fiber-broadband project to help ensure success:
1. Understand Your Why. Why are you looking to start the project and what are the real drivers? Are you looking for greater economic growth, better access to healthcare through telemedicine, or need to connect students to teachers through remote learning? Maybe it’s all of the above or a combination of several other factors. Either way, start with the community’s need. When working with utilities, my team tends to ask a lot of questions in the beginning because having a clear “why” typically equates to a clear success. The “why” often dictates the approach we take in designing a network; we want “why” to be prioritized.
2. Have a Timeline in Mind. One of the biggest factors in determining a project’s success is determining the community’s needs that have to be addressed, then setting a goal of how quickly you need to get there. The timing will help determine how to proceed with your fiber-broadband project, as well as whom to partner with to help you achieve your goals. Then, it’s the engineering firm’s responsibility to advise you about how realistic your timeline is, and help you to determine if you should phase and monetize the project, or build it all at once. Sometimes, there are political and financial considerations to be aware of when designing and constructing a fiber network. Knowing your timeline determines whether construction should begin as quickly as possible or if the network should include a “just-in-time design.”
3. Determine Your Level of Involvement. It seems like an obvious question, but it’s one that’s often overlooked: To what extent do you wish to be involved in the project? Do you have the resources (staff or otherwise) to actively participate? Do you want key staff involved in the project or do you prefer to outsource? Determining your level of involvement will help inform who you choose to engage for professional or engineering services, and how to best scope the relationship. There are many engineering firms in the fiber-broadband space and none specialize in doing “everything,” so ask about their network of partners, make sure it is robust and that the engineering company is being transparent about those partners. At Biarri, we may be an end-to-end telecom engineering firm, but we always work with an ecosystem of industry-leading partners, because it’s impossible for one entity to specialize in everything. If someone is promising you the sun, the moon, and the stars, or if they’re not being transparent about who their partners are, run! Transparent collaboration yields outstanding results and delivers the type of success that utilities deserve to have.
4. Undertake a Data-Health Check. This is a biggie. Think of this as your project’s “insurance policy.” Knowing the state of your data can help in understanding how quickly you can get moving with a paperless, data-driven design, which is the fastest, most-efficient means to an end. My team has processed data for over 8 million homes passed, which means we’ve seen a lot of data, and unfortunately, lots of errors and incorrect assumptions. Plainly put: Conducting a data-health check—getting a second opinion—is a relatively inexpensive way to reduce risk and keep your project costs low.
5. You Don’t Have to be a Pioneer. The good news is that you’re not alone! Other utilities are engaging in fiber-broadband projects successfully. So are countless cities and towns across the U.S. Learn from those with a great approach, one that works well, and who are reaping amazing results! We’ll be happy to share our knowledge with you or to connect you to other utilities with impressive track records.
Stick to these five pieces of advice and your fiber-broadband project will be off to a strong start.
Author Paul Sulisz is CEO of Biarri Networks, a global end-to-end telecom engineering firm based in Denver, with a specialty in designing broadband networks in rural areas.