FBA CEO says ‘no one too expensive to reach’ with fiber

A recent round of government grants revealed the startling costs associated with covering residents in the most remote parts of the U.S. But while $200,000 per passing might seem like an eye-popping figure, Fiber Broadband Association chief Gary Bolton told Fierce that number applies to only the most extreme deployments. And in any event, he added, the long-term economic and systemic benefits of bringing fiber to such locations outweigh the upfront costs.

According to Bolton, the average cost for a Tier-1 operator to deploy fiber is between $600 to $1,500 per passing. For rural homes on larger lots of six to eight acres, the cost rises to between $2,000 and $4,000 per passing. Extremely rural homes, he continued, usually run anywhere from $3,000 to $4,000 per passing.

The builds the government’s ReConnect program is fueling at tens of thousands of dollars per passing represent “the very edge, edge, edge cases,” Bolton said. But that doesn’t mean the money is being wasted.

“There’s no one too expensive to reach. If you can get power there, you should be putting fiber there,” Bolton said. “The reason is if you don’t put fiber you’re not going to create the economic development and jobs and education and everything that you’re going to be able to do to be able to grow the economy in that location.”

Fixed wireless access (FWA) technology has recently surged in popularity as an alternative to traditional wired broadband connections. Verizon already offers FWA service tiers which deliver download speeds up to 300 Mbps or 1 gig. And Nextlink is deploying a Tarana FWA system which can be upgraded to deliver symmetrical speeds of 800 Mbps.   

While FWA advocates have argued the technology can be deployed cheaper and faster to connect unserved parts of the country, Bolton contended it’s not a long-term solution. He pointed to a study by CTC Technology and Energy which was published by the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society in June.

The study confirmed that construction costs for fixed wireless are significantly cheaper than fiber across the board. But it also showed the 30-year TCO ranges for fiber and FWA deployments are similar across small towns, medium density rural and low-density rural environments. The high end of the TCO range was only significantly lower for FWA in very low-density environments. Additionally, the report acknowledged the recent improvements in FWA performance but concluded the technology lacks the long-term scalability of fiber.

Bolton said FWA may well be a good stop-gap solution until fixed networks reach a given area, but he warned against viewing it as a permanent fix.

Fiber infrastructure, by contrast, can scale to meet future demand and can also be used to support other services like 5G and smart city rollouts. In an interesting turn, Bolton also argued the benefits of connecting more people to work from home and other economic opportunities could help alleviate pressure on the country’s criminal justice and transportation systems. Better to spend money addressing the root of the problem, than treating symptoms, he said.

That said, Bolton acknowledged middle mile access is a huge issue that drives up the cost of rural fiber deployments. While the government allocated $42.5 billion for last mile rollouts in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, it set aside just $1 billion for middle mile expansions in the same bill.

“A billion is woefully short in comparison to the money for everything else,” Bolton said.

He noted, though, that funding is also available through the American Rescue Plan Act and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service. That money, coupled with private investments, should be enough to drastically change the broadband landscape. He also pointed out that only a fraction of the $20-plus billion available through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund has been allocated thus far.

“Let’s see where we get to and see where we need to apply the rest of the money,” he concluded.