Consolidated spotlights 5G, public-private partnership potential

Consolidated Communications CEO Bob Udell highlighted 5G and public-private partnerships as two key opportunities for ISPs to close the broadband gap in the rural U.S., but warned state-level restrictions could hamper the latter’s potential.

Founded in Illinois in 1894 as the Mattoon Telephone Company, Consolidated Communications now ranks among the top 10 fiber providers in the U.S., with a footprint spanning 23 states and 46,000 route miles of fiber.

Udell told Fierce the company’s business is organized around the pursuit of three main customer channels – consumer (residential), commercial (enterprise) and carriers (wholesale) – as a means of securing economically viable ways to bring broadband to rural communities.

While any one of those customer groups can serve as an initial driver for a build, he said it aims to secure at least two of the three channels over the long-term “as a way to anchor our investment.”

The company recently set a goal to cover at least 70% of its footprint with gigabit broadband services by 2025. Udell said he sees 5G rollouts as a key chance to advance its plan.

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“I think 5G is a great opportunity for us,” he said, explaining that for service to be “consistent, high-speed, virtual-reality-type capable internet, it’s got to be fiber-based.” Udell added, “We’re all over proposals with the wireless carriers trying to help them build out their footprint.”

The CEO said wireless operators are “at different points in their strategy” with some seeking dark fiber while others are seeking a managed service.

“What we want to do is have the network that’s the best alternative for them in every market we choose to do business, because we don’t think these markets can sustain multiple fiber networks on top of one another…so we’re trying to get there first, and in most cases we are, and we’re trying to make sure we’ve got the best experience and ability to solve their coverage problems.”

Consolidated currently services 3,600 towers, and Udell said the company is responding to RFPs in “multiple locations” to cover anywhere from tens to hundreds of new sites. All told, he said Consolidated thinks the total 5G opportunity for new sites “will be in the thousands.”

Public-private option

Udell stressed Consolidated is committed to using “whatever means necessary to make rural broadband a reality,” noting that in some cases that means turning to public-private partnerships.

For instance, Consolidated last month revealed plans to expand its fiber coverage to 300,000 more locations in 2021, with 8,000 of these stemming from a public-private partnership with the Westmoreland Broadband Advisory Committee in New Hampshire.

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Udell explained that such agreements allow cities and towns to use public funding mechanisms, such as bonds or other tax schemes, to help fuel investments from private companies in their communities and thus offer new or improved services to residents.

Since striking its first public-private partnership in 2017, Udell said Consolidated has seen “many communities pursue us” rather than the other way around. But he characterized such relationships as an “evolving” rather than rapidly growing opportunity, noting laws in some states can make it difficult to pursue such arrangements.

As part of a recently unveiled $2 trillion infrastructure package, President Joe Biden proposed $100 billion in funding for broadband, with an emphasis on boosting networks owned by local governments and other non-commercial players.

But Udell said “the idea of a city being their own broadband provider was proven to not be quite successful” in areas funded by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP).

He concluded “what we have found is the cities that have state statutes and flexibility to create a way to partner with private industry seem to be able to move the quickest…It’s an incredibly productive opportunity.”