Aerial fiber is likely to play big role in BEAD deployments

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will announce the allotment of BEAD funds to the U.S. states and territories this month. And NTIA has indicated it wants areas that are unserved with broadband to receive the funds first.

Jonathan Chambers, a partner with the fiber construction company Conexon, says that in terms of deploying fiber to rural areas of the U.S. that are unserved with broadband, the fiber deployments are going to be mostly aerial deployments as opposed to trenched deployments.

Conexon is already in the business of bringing fiber to rural communities. It primarily works with rural electric co-ops to lash fiber onto existing electric utility lines. Conexon managed the Rural Electric Cooperative Consortium that was among the top three winners of bids in the 2020 RDOF auction.

Chambers said, “If you’re talking BEAD funding it’s almost all going to be aerial.”

This is because of cost: lashing fiber onto existing utility infrastructure over long distances is going to be cheaper than digging trenches to lay underground fiber. “It costs three to four times more to build underground than it costs to put on poles,” said Chambers. “Electric co-ops are rural in most cases, and if you’re in a rural area it’s always aerial.”

It costs Conexon about $25,000 per mile for aerial fiber deployments and $60,000-$70,000 per mile to build underground. 

He said the electric distribution system has been built over the course of decades, and its builders have already made the decisions about the most efficient routes. “You can’t build rural networks underground because it’s too expensive,” said Chambers.

Variables to consider for aerial vs underground

Jeffrey Austin, senior director for the fiber build strategy at Consolidated Communications, said a top consideration is whether you have existing facilities in the area where you want to build.

Consolidated’s territory includes areas in Vermont where most of its infrastructure is aerial, but it also has a lot of buried infrastructure in other states such as Illinois and California. “The cost is going to depend on existing facilities,” said Austin. “In the buried areas where we have existing conduit with maybe copper today, running fiber through that existing conduit is going to cost similar to overlashing on poles.”

He said the weather and terrain in a given geography are also factors. There’s a lot of granite in the Northeast, which makes trenching nearly impossible. And in really cold states such as Minnesota the ground is too frozen to trench for several months of the year. While aerial deployments can happen year-round.

Allen Hemrich, SVP of operations for the East Region at Mears Group, said he does think that a lot of companies applying for BEAD funding will use aerial fiber as opposed to trenched fiber, but, like Austin he thinks it will depend on their existing infrastructure. “In some cases they might have places for middle-mile that bypasses residential,” he said. And in those cases they’ll probably mimic their existing infrastructure to reach those new residences.


Austin said fiber broadband works just as well whether it’s buried or aerial. But aerial is susceptible to harsh weather events, lightening strikes and also to animals such as birds and squirrels pecking at the cables.

Chambers argued that aerial fiber is just as durable as underground fiber. He said people have relied on aerial lines for their electricity and telephone communications for decades, and fiber is more resilient because it’s encased in armor, and the glass itself bends. In addition, he said fixed wireless access (FWA) is likely to go out in a thunderstorm. But when a storm takes down aerial wires, the fiber usually still works.

But Hemrich said aerial fiber often survives well even after severe weather such as a hurricane, but then it accidentally gets cut during the restoration process.

Dangerous working conditions

While you would think that deploying aerial cables is more dangerous than trenching, laying underground fiber can also be hazardous because workers have to watch out for other underground systems such as natural gas and electric.

“Underground is all about dig safe,” said Austin. In terms of aerial he said, “It’s nice to be able to see what you’re working with.”

Chambers said, “Everybody builds on poles to some extent, including Verizon and AT&T. We’re not building up where the electric wires are. We build below the neutral wire."

But Hemrich said, “I have always believed that aerial deployments are more dangerous because you’re elevating people at heights. And if deploying in a joint-use power environment you could arc power onto the pole. There’s the shock hazard and falling from heights and traffic.”


Consolidated’s Austin said trenching for new cable is perhaps a little more challenging from the permitting perspective because there’s more potential disruption when you have an excavator and a boring machine, especially if they’re operating next to a road.

But Mears’ Hemrich said the pole permitting process can add a lot of cost in certain situations. If poles are congested with equipment from other users, then there’s a make-ready process that can be time consuming. And sometimes, the utility has to erect a whole new pole, which is also time consuming.

Hemrich said, “One pole replacement for a project in Kentucky cost upwards of $15,000 to $20,000. That really adds cost especially if you’ve got a pole every 200-300 feet.”

He thinks the permitting process for aerial is worse than for buried because in addition to permitting for the underlaying right to deploy fiber you have the extra layer of permitting for a pole attachment.

Scope of project to deploy fiber to unserved rural

Conexon’s Chambers claims the company is the largest constructor of fiber broadband networks in the country. One reason is because it’s working with electric co-ops to provide fiber along their entire infrastructure – not just to areas with enough density to support a fiber broadband business model. While there may be areas with few fiber broadband customers, the electric utility itself uses the fiber to do things such as control and monitor its own infrastructure.

“Last year we built over 50,000 linear miles of fiber. Not strand miles,” said Chambers. “Verizon and AT&T talk fiber strand miles. I doubt anyone else has built even 30,000 linear miles.”

He estimates that to reach all the unserved rural areas it will require stringing nearly 3 million linear miles of aerial fiber.

Hemrich said rural co-ops are in a very good position to provide broadband service to unserved areas. “Electric goes to our doorstep today."