Making “Future Proof” Affordable: Leveraging Hybrid Networks to Bridge the Digital Divide

October 2nd, 2020 by · Leave a Comment

This Industry Viewpoint was authored by GeoLinks’ Melissa Slawson

We’ve all heard the term “future proof” – the concept of building something unlikely to become obsolete. In the broadband world, a future-proof network is one that can accommodate the ever-changing needs of an ever-growing, ever-more-bandwidth-hungry society. While no one knows what network technologies await us, “future proof” has become synonymous with “fiber only.” However, promoting projects that exclude any technology except fiber makes the promise of a “future-proof” network more costly, more time consuming and much more difficult to deliver.

No one denies that an all-fiber network, in concept, is great. It’s high speed, scalable, resilient and, if engineered correctly, completely redundant. However, it also comes with a high price tag and can take an exceedingly long time to deploy – 90 to 120 days is not uncommon.

What lobbyists and lawmakers overlook when latching on to the “future-proof fiber” mantra is that fiber is not the only way to connect residential and business consumers. And, even more importantly, it’s not always the best or most efficient way to close the widening digital divide and connect underserved consumers.

Finite broadband deployment resources (i.e., funds) stretch further when hybrid network approaches are used. When other technologies are leveraged, more areas can be connected and often in a far shorter timeframe than with fiber-only networks. For example, one technology that pairs easily with fiber is fixed wireless. Fixed wireless is often a less expensive, more rapidly deployable and equally scalable option for:

  • filling network gaps with high-speed, redundant microwave-enabled backhaul or middle-mile services
  • delivering enterprise-grade connections to business and anchor institutions (e.g., schools, libraries, and hospitals),
  • providing high-quality last-mile connections to residential subscribers

By way of example, here’s the case of a recent project to connect a school in rural California. A fiber connection to the school from existing fiber infrastructure 19 miles away was quoted at more than $24 million – for one school. In contrast, using fixed wireless technology, the school could connect for around $340,000 – less than 2 percent of the cost of an all-fiber connection. In addition, the build was completed in a considerably shorter timeframe than the fiber build was anticipated to take.

My goal in writing this is not to convince you that fixed wireless is a complete substitute for fiber; it’s not. Fiber is essential; all transport networks need to interconnect to a fiber headend.

And, due to external factors such as topography, topology and foliage, fixed wireless technology is not always the right fit. But sometimes, like in the case of that rural school, it very much is. Ignoring that fact and instead selecting a buzzworthy, all-fiber network that may not reach everyone, costs millions more and takes several more years to deploy is a flawed strategy. It fails to address the urgency and cost-efficiency needed to truly future-proof our national network infrastructure.

To reach our goals to provide ubiquitous broadband connectivity to all Americans, we must allow for agile network planning that considers a variety of technological options that may reduce cost and buildout time while still obtaining a scalable, resilient, future-proof broadband network.

About the Author

Melissa Slawson is General Counsel and Vice President of Government Affairs and Education for GeoLinks, a leading provider of Internet and connectivity services, including fixed wireless, SD-WAN and Ethernet. She also is the Chair of the Rural Expansion Working Group for the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA).

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Categories: Industry Viewpoint · Wireless

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