Cartesian works with many players on BEAD projects

Cartesian is a Boston-based consulting firm that has become a familiar name in the telecom world. It’s working with the Fiber Broadband Association, ACA Connects and NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association on projects related to the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) fund.

Cartesian employs about 200 people worldwide, and it focuses on communications, media and technology.

Samuel Kornstein, managing director at Cartesian, said the company had good timing with BEAD because it had coincidentally published a study — before the BEAD legislation — estimating how much it would cost to deploy fiber to all parts of the country that didn’t have it. 

“We were told it was an input to determine what was appropriate to BEAD,” said Kornstein.

Since the BEAD program has begun, Cartesian has worked with the above-named telecom associations and also with many service providers.

Kornstein said it’s tricky for the service providers because BEAD allows each state to customize its own program to a large extent. “One of the limitations of de-centralized is that you end up with 50 different programs,” he said. 

That makes for some complicated financial and mapping models, especially for the incumbents that already have footprints across different states. They must figure out where it makes financial sense to expand their networks to BEAD eligible locations. And they also have to understand the policy differences for each state.

But the good news is that with BEAD being distributed at the state level, the operators can really engage with the state broadband officers and find the best local solutions.

“We have a very robust GIS analytics team, looking at eligible locations,” said Kornstein.

Cartesian also tries to help state broadband officers. Kornstein said, “When BEAD came out, a lot of states didn’t even have a broadband office. One of the first things we did was a State Broadband Playbook.”

Cartesian estimates there will be enough money to bring broadband to most unserved locations in the U.S.

It recently conducted a study for the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA), receiving input from providers and contractors across 35 states. It surveyed respondents about the different costs for underground fiber versus aerial fiber.

According to the report, the median cost for underground deployments is $16.25 per foot, more than twice the median cost for aerial deployments ($6.49 per foot).

Cartesian has also worked with ACA Connects to determine the costs of serving BEAD eligible locations.

Their most recent report says the average cost to serve an unserved location with BEAD funding would be around $13,300, while an underserved location would cost $11,900.

Interestingly, Kornstein said most ISPs are not willing to invest more than $2,000 to 3,000 per location.

While that seems like a big disconnect between the average cost to serve locations and the price that ISPs are willing to pay, Kornstein said averages can be deceiving because many locations are less expensive and some are much more expensive. “States that are funding-constrained won’t be able to fund the most expensive locations with fiber using BEAD grants,” he said.

That’s why the BEAD program allows states to set extremely high-cost thresholds for locations that would be exorbitantly expensive to serve with fiber. Of the thresholds, Kornstein said, “If you set it too high, the state could run out of money. But if you set it too low, you’re basically settling for a lower quality technology where you could have had fiber.”