6 issues to get the ball rolling on mass fiber deployments in the U.S.

Last week everybody who is anybody in the fiber ecosystem in the U.S. gathered in Nashville for the Fiber Broadband Association’s Fiber Connect 2022 conference.

The conference itself was a multi-day victory lap, celebrating the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act (IIJA) and the fact that the government has expressed a preference for fiber.

Among dozens of panels, luncheons, keynotes and hallway conversations, one thing became clear: communication is going to be a big part of the process. Since the government has chosen to distribute the $45 billion in funding via states and territories, a lot of relationship-building needs to happen. And there is a history of some mistrust between municipalities and their service providers.

Kathryn De Wit, project director of the Broadband Access Initiative with Pew Charitable Trusts, noted, “We did get the prioritization for fiber. But we have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Here are six issues that rose to the top of the conversations:

1 – Education is key

One of the first steps is to help state governments — many of which are in the process of setting up (or beefing up) state broadband offices — get informed about the IIJA programs. For instance, the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program is the largest IIJA program with $42.5 billion in funding. There’s also the $1 billion Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure program and the $1.5 billion State Digital Equity Act program.

Trent Fellers, vice president for State Government Affairs at Windstream, said it’s critical to make counties across the country aware of what grant dollars are out there. “We’ve been sending our teams out to knock on doors, say this is available with state broadband programs and advocating so they can know what will work well for us as service providers in the area.”

2 – State broadband offices are understaffed
Lori Adams, senior director of Broadband Policy & Funding Strategy at Nokia, said, “States are desperately understaffed and trying to manage these programs. The education component is really where we spend a lot of our time right now.”

3 – Tribes need help but are suspicious
Godfrey Enjady, president of the National Tribal Telecommunication Association, said all the federal funding for fiber broadband presents “a big opportunity for tribes,” but “tribes do not understand how to do this at all.”

He noted there are 12 tribal telephone companies in the U.S. right now, which tribal nations rely on. But he said service providers “have failed” tribes in terms of investing in decent-quality broadband. “There’s quite a bit of help Indian country needs,” he said. “It’s the big carriers that are owned by shareholders that have not done a good job for Indian country.” He specifically criticized Frontier.

4 – Earning trust
Meanwhile, Reed Nelson, senior director for Construction & Engineering at Frontier, said the company has noticed, when dealing with local governments, that “there is a swing” between those who are gung-ho for the possibilities of fiber and “those who push back.”

Tamarah Holmes, director of the Office of Broadband at the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, said “A lot of our locales have been burnt by their provider.” She added that it will be necessary to “be honest about the history of mistrust.”

Peggy Schaffer, executive director for Connect Maine, said, “It’s everybody’s God-given right to hate their ISP. That’s a barrier you need to overcome.” She said many communities in Maine have experienced years of neglect by their service providers, and it will take work to rebuild those relationships. 

5 – Mapping is key
It’s mentioned all the time, but nevertheless true: the only way that government funds will be able to target all unserved areas in the U.S. is if there are accurate broadband maps. Georgia is ahead of the nation on this one, having already created a detailed broadband map.

Jessica Simmons, deputy CIO for Broadband & Special Projects at Georgia Technical Authority, said the state stood up its location-level broadband map in 2018 and is about to go through a second refresh. “It has been so crucial to make sure we get this right; to make sure we get to the unserved and underserved in Georgia,” she said.

6 – Focus on the opportunity cost
DeWit from The Pew Charitable Trusts said fiber is the thing that is going to guarantee economic opportunity for years into the future. She said successful state programs use a common set of activities. They engage diverse stakeholders; they equip local leaders to negotiate public-private partnerships with service providers; and they evaluate the impact of new broadband deployments to improve their operations going forward. She said states that are spending money on fiber are seeing a high return on investment in their local economies. It’s a way to keep skilled workers from moving away and to keep revenue in state.

She advised attendees at Fiber Connect who are spreading the word about federal funding to focus less on the business case and more on the opportunity cost of not having fiber broadband.