Driving Connectivity Revolution: Insights from Fiber Connect 2023
Stepping onto the stage at Fiber Connect 2023 in Orlando, Florida, on Aug. 21, 2023, ROCK Networks Founder and President Joe Hickey shared his latest insights during a panel discussion on open access networks and rural broadband. At the event, Joe also gathered valuable insights into the current landscape of fibre broadband. This blog will delve into some of the conference’s highlights.
What is Fiber Connect?
Fiber Connect is an annual event held by the Fiber Broadband Association, a US-based association focused on connecting every home, business, and community in North and Latin America to fibre broadband. Fiber Connect 2023 featured executives from various industry sectors, including commercial network operators, mobile network operators, electric cooperatives, municipalities, digital infrastructure asset owners and developers, investors, technology suppliers, enterprises, and more. Fiber Connect attendees are the driving force behind investing in, deploying, and running ultra-high-speed broadband networks.
Joe’s Panel: Open Access Community Broadband Networks Are Revolutionizing Internet Access for Rural Communities
Joe was honoured to be invited to speak at Fiber Connect for the second year in a row. He was joined on a panel by Southern Tier Network, Calix and Ciena representatives. This panel focused on the pivotal role that open access networks can play in bridging the digital divide. With the rise of remote work, online education, and digital entertainment, the need for high-speed internet has never been higher. However, rural communities can’t access the same speeds as their urban counterparts, and some communities have no connectivity at all.
The cost of deploying fibre cable in sparsely populated areas remains a significant challenge for internet service providers (ISPs). Innovative open access community broadband network models have emerged as a solution. This panel explored how collaborative partnerships between fibre providers, ISPs, and municipalities can accelerate universal broadband access for rural communities.
The topics Joe contributed to the conversation included an overview of the types of networks ROCK operates. Joe discussed how he was inspired to develop open access networks after the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted Canada’s digital divide. Leveraging the Canadian Federal Government’s Universal Broadband Fund (UBF), ROCK partnered with rural, remote, and First Nations communities to secure funding for broadband projects.
Currently, ROCK is involved with two different open access models. Under the first model, ROCK operates a network owned by a municipality. ROCK also owns and operates a network. Under both models, multiple ISPs can sell their services on the network. Both ventures prioritize reliable connectivity, with initial internet speeds of 50/10 Mbps, significantly elevating service in underserved regions. The open access design sets the stage for future services to cater to evolving needs.
Joe also shared insights into where he sees open access networks becoming most popular. Open access networks have gained popularity in Europe and globally, and ROCK sees their initial adoption focused in rural and remote regions. Historically, larger telecommunication companies have neglected these areas due to concerns over their economic feasibility. Open access networks address this issue by distributing infrastructure costs among municipalities, network operators, and service providers, offering a shared financial burden that makes reaching sparsely populated areas more viable. Rural municipalities also favour open access networks as they keep profits within the community rather than diverting them to the urban headquarters of larger telcos.
The panel also covered network design, service standards, differentiating offerings between multiple ISPs, network operator involvement, and billing issues in open access networks.
Key Fiber Connect 2023 Session Highlights
Joe attended several other sessions while at the conference. Here, we’ll present some of his key takeaways.
The C-Suite Forum featured representatives from Calix, Kelley Drye & Warren, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), UTOPIA Fiber, the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, Google Fiber, Ready.net, Inc., The Permitting Council, the Federal Communications Commission, USDA Rural Utilities Service and On Trac, Inc. The discussions centred on the present and future of US fibre Connectivity.
The Head of Regulatory Affairs at Fiber Connect dished out some impressive stats, noting the US has 114 million connections, 40 million of which use fibre, achieving a 90% nationwide connection rate. The average speed jumped 59% to 300 Mbps, and fibre service prices dropped to around $60-70 monthly compared to traditional cable TV’s $110.
The focus shifted to the remaining challenges: addressing the 8 million unserved and 3.6 million underserved populations, with projections indicating a decline to 7 million with current adoption rates. The Head of Regulatory Affairs at Fiber Connect further touched on potential headwinds, including interest rates and congressional funding approval.
Courtney Dozier, Deputy Director of NTIA’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, provided an update on BEAD’s substantial $42.45 billion funding for broadband projects. Funding proposals will be evaluated by a 75-25% split between NTIA and the states, respectively, with deadlines set for the end of the year. The process includes prioritizing the unserved, then the underserved, followed by anchor institutions.
Andy Berke, formerly the Mayor of Chattanooga, TN, now a part of the Rural Utility Service (RUS), announced an added $670 million in ReConnect Program funds, spanning clean energy and broadband. Each project can get $25 million in grants and loans to uplift rural areas. The broader picture also outlined $2 billion in upcoming funding, with initiatives like Community Connect targeting areas with no service, Digital Equity to improve access to distance learning and telemedicine, and the Broadband Technical Assistance Fund supporting communities in planning for broadband projects.
Berke shared some stories he has heard from his tours of rural America. He paints a vivid picture of individuals’ varied struggles due to the absence of reliable broadband. These stories echo the hardships of individuals like Pat in Iowa, whose inability to perform her call centre job remotely due to a lack of connectivity forced her to sell her house. Similarly, the pandemic-induced need for high-speed internet has become a determinative factor for students, some of whom had to quit school because they couldn’t access distance education. On the brighter side, stories like that of Oklahoma farmer Meg illustrate the potential broadband offers, enabling real-time monitoring of commodity prices and enhancing agricultural practices.
Industry Leaders Round Table: Workforce Development
This session featured speakers from Tower Systems Inc., National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, and The Broadband Forum. This discussion focused on developing a strong workforce as fibre broadband construction is increasing rapidly.
The panel began with a discussion on the training previously provided to those entering the fibre optic industry. The training was initially developed when fibre was new, more expensive than today, and fewer organizations were involved in the field. Workers were often trained on the job or trained by vendors. Limited formal training options were available, and existing ones were limited in scope due to the cost of hiring instructors.
Today, 60% of the industry’s fibre optic technicians are over the age of 40. Large numbers will retire in the coming years, and there currently aren’t enough skilled workers to fill the gap. The skills shortage comes at a time when the telecom industry is expected to create 205,000 jobs by 2025 as broadband demand soars.
In response to these challenges, NTCA recently launched an initiative called the Broadband Opportunities and Leadership Development (BOLD) K-12 Career Awareness Toolkit. This program allows rural broadband providers to work with schools to develop a curriculum, host student site visits and sponsor educational events.
Fiber Broadband Triple Check
This panel featured speakers from Centranet, US Ignite, Ting Internet and The Enterprise Project. They discuss new metrics for gauging success in closing the digital divide and providing new opportunities for everyone to connect to the internet.
They pointed out that investing in fibre doesn’t just speed up the internet; it also has a significant economic impact. Every dollar put into fibre investment can result in a fourfold economic boost. This shows how vital broadband access is for economic growth.
The panel also chatted about a significant change in economic development. It used to be about getting businesses to set up shop, but now it’s about bringing high-paying jobs to rural areas. This makes for well-rounded communities to live, work and play.
To measure connectivity projects’ performance, they introduced a three-step checklist: homes passed, homes connected, and homes using the internet. It’s not just about having the internet; it’s about making it count.
They highlighted US Ignite, a nonprofit teaching people to make the most of the internet. They’re developing training programs to empower everyone to reap the benefits of an internet connection fully.
In health news, they revealed that 21% of Medicaid funds go to substance use recovery. Telehealth was shown to be a game-changer here, keeping people engaged in their recovery journey, no matter where they are.
The experts on the panel gave us a peek into the future of digital equality and its role in making the world a better place for everyone.
This panel featured speakers from Adtran, Nokia, Needham & Company, AFL and Ready.net Inc. This panel discussion focused on the micro and macroeconomics at play as fibre broadband opens up an entirely new future for everyone, everywhere. The focus was on expanding networks to benefit operators, communities, and users. This involves ensuring a solid return on investment (ROI), from lowering connection costs to capitalizing on fibre’s impact on jobs, GDP, and industry growth.
The panel suggested a target ROI of 10%, although, in our opinion, that target is on the low end of potential ROI.
During the talk, it was noted that older technologies like copper and DSL are declining. The rise of 5G players in fixed wireless was also considered. However, it was agreed that fibre offers a more sustainable solution than the interim nature of Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) with its slower speeds.
The recurring need for wireless upgrades every 5-7 years was seen as a challenge. Interestingly, 5G capital spending dropped by 40% year-over-year in the US. The US’s BEAD program, which requires a 100/20 speed target, was discussed. The consensus was that higher bandwidth encourages innovation.
The panel also addressed potential slowdown factors, including supply constraints, localized demand fluctuations driven by different states, and the challenge of aligning initiatives with state agendas. Labour costs and uncertainties stemming from upcoming US elections were also mentioned.
The panel’s insights underline the need for strategic collaboration and adaptability, steering us towards a digitally inclusive future.
Operator Light Talk: How Fiber Disrupts the Future of the Internet
This session was presented by Dinni Jain, CEO of Google Fiber. The session focused on how fibre is changing the future of the internet and what it means to be a next-generation ISP.
Jain highlighted that we’re undeniably in the age of fibre, where the question isn’t whether it’s needed but when it will be accessible. Just as copper and coaxial cables paved the way, fibre is poised to become the bedrock of the next internet era. He drew attention to the TikTok phenomenon, noting its popularity among a generation that values speed and reliable Wi-Fi. With future technologies like AI and quantum computing on the horizon, the demand for speed will soar.
He anticipated the emergence of new fibre companies alongside telecom and cable giants upgrading their networks. Jain outlined key opportunities in pricing, speed, reliability, and service for upcoming generations.
Jain speculated that the real competition in fibre wouldn’t hinge solely on speed but pricing. He spoke about XGS-PON, which stands for 10 Gigabit Symmetrical Passive Optical Network, and its potential to provide multi-gig speeds at current prices, predicting higher adoption rates for lower-priced multi-gig tiers.
The discussion delved into Wi-Fi in homes. Jain spotlighted the TikTok generation’s reliance on Wi-Fi and the necessity for home Wi-Fi to be highly dependable. Addressing the challenge of repairing fibre cuts, he stressed the urgency of reducing Mean Time to Repair (MTTR) and improving fibre splicing processes. He also emphasized the importance of advanced battery backup solutions to mitigate power-related disruptions.
Looking forward, Jain examined the evolving landscape of customer service. He noted that customer service standards have evolved in tandem with changing technologies, citing Netflix’s streamlined sign-up process as an example. He stressed the need to redefine customer service, particularly for the TikTok generation, who prefer immediate solutions. Technologies like video calls and service tracking tools were presented as innovative ways to meet these evolving service expectations.
Jain did an excellent job of illuminating the multifaceted impact of fibre on the internet landscape, encapsulating technological advancements, service evolution, and the shifting demands of a new generation of consumers.
Overall, Fiber Connect 2023 contained a wealth of knowledge sharing, collaboration, and exploration of innovative solutions to propel universal broadband access and connectivity forward. Joe was thrilled to be there to share his knowledge and learn from leaders in the field. Interested in learning more about ROCK Network’s expertise in fibre broadband? We’d love to hear from you.