Cisco takes aim at rural broadband with network solutions for service providers

Cisco is aiming to help service providers bridge the digital divide in rural areas across the U.S. by offering network solutions.

In addition to the network gear and software, Cisco also plans to open its Cisco Rural Broadband Innovation Center in Raleigh, North Carolina this fall. The innovation lab, which will start out with virtual tours before going to in-building visits, will demonstrate the steps needed for converging wireline and wireless infrastructure and services in order to deliver more cost effective broadband offerings.

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The lab will feature Cisco's routing and optical platforms including the Cisco 8000 Series routers that are powered by Cisco Silicon One chip, both of which were announced in December of last year as part of the vendor's "Internet of the Future" initiative.

The lab will also include Cisco Cloud Services Stack for telco cloud environments and Cisco's automation and security solutions for service providers.

During last month's fourth quarter earnings call, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins laid out a restructuring plan that included a voluntary retirement program and layoffs as the company adjusts to the coronavirus pandemic. The restructuring plan started in the current quarter and is expected to recognize a related one-time charge of about $900 million. Cisco's service provider sector has struggled over the past few quarters, but working with rural carriers could a bright spot for Cisco.

Along with other vendors, such as Calix and Adtran, Cisco is targeting the nearly 30 million U.S. citizens that don't have high-speed broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission, by helping small, rural service providers.

Through various government programs that provide $37 billion in federal funding, service providers and vendors are working on faster broadband speeds in under-served rural areas, in addition to rural areas that don't have broadband.

With remote learning due to the coronavirus, rural broadband has taken on added importance this year.

On the wired side, Cisco is working with TruVista, which is a telco service provider in Chester, South Carolina. TruVista is in the process of deploying 257 miles of fiber-optic cable in order to offer faster broadband services in 81 square miles of unserved communities.

Using a $9.1 million grant from USDA Re-Connect, TruVista plans to reach more than 1,700 additional homes by using Cisco's Rural Broadband network solutions. TruVista is deploying hardware and software from Cisco's Mass Scale infrastructure portfolio, which includes the vendor's ASR 900 routers, 100G/200G transceiver modules, NCS 5500 routers, NCS 5542 routers, IOS-XR software and Cisco Umbrella security.

“We began our journey to deploy an end-to-end IP architecture with Cisco five years ago, and throughout they have been a guiding light, helping us work through pros and cons to make more intelligent decisions,” said TruVista's Sam Fitzgerald, senior director of engineering and operations, in a statement.

On the wireless side, Cisco announced on Wednesday that it's working with MuralNet to launch a Sustainable Tribal Networks program to provide internet access and services to the 574 federally recognized, sovereign, Native American Tribes—which total close to three million people— to foster better economic, health and educational opportunities. Approximately 1.5 million citizens on these reservations don't have basic wireless services, and more than a third of those living on tribal lands don’t have access to high-speed broadband. Cisco is providing financial support, legal, technical and market expertise, among other resources.  

RDOF opportunities for Cisco

Cisco's bottom line could also be buoyed by the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) program. In January, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced its RDOF program for faster broadband speeds in order to help close the digital divide in rural areas. RDOF will push out up to $20.4 billion in funding over the next 10 years to build and connect gigabit broadband speeds in unserved rural areas.

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The RDOF auction could have as many as 505 bidders, according to the FCC. The first phase of the RDOF auction is scheduled to begin in October and will award up to $16 billion, with a follow-up auction awarding an additional $4 billion.

The FCC announced last week that it had received complete applications from 121 entities and incomplete applications from 384 entities. Those who submitted incomplete applications have until September 23 to correct their applications.

"Cisco is engaged with service providers across all broadband funding programs including RDOF," Cisco said in a statement to FierceTelecom. "We are focused on educating service providers of the opportunity to expand broadband access with U.S. government funding programs and providing the solutions and expertise to build new rural broadband networks. Stay tuned for more details as the RDOF program commences, and bids are entered/awarded."

On the telco side, CenturyLink, Cincinnati Bell, Frontier, Verizon and Windstream are expected to take part in the reverse auction while Charter Communications, Altice USA, Cox Communications, and Midcontinent Communications are among the cable operator bidders.

"What is interesting to me is exactly what type of fiber architecture these cable operators will use," said Jeff Heynen, senior research director for broadband access and home networking at Dell'Oro Group, in an email to FierceTelecom. "I guess we’ll have to see."