Government funding will drive broadband deployments in 2023, but it will take collaboration and flexibility to meet the need.
By Jason Zelley
Published: November 17, 2022
In the broadband/carrier space, 2022 was a year of excitement, mixed with some hesitancy and uncertainty. 2023 will be a year of clarity and execution as we deepen our understanding of who in America remains unconnected, and work to close that digital divide.
We stand at a moment of opportunity, where a historic level of government funding is available to those working to close that gap, but how those people get connected is critically important. A long-term vision is needed to truly connect all Americans and bring opportunity to all. Here's what Corning will be focused on in this space in 2023.
Connecting the unconnected, driven by government funding
Having broadband included in the federal infrastructure investment bill has forever changed how we think about federal investment in broadband. Moving forward, connectivity will be considered infrastructure just like electricity, sewer and water, and that’s a positive thing that will change the conversation.
The inclusion of broadband in this legislation was driven by an understanding, reinforced and brought into sharp relief by the pandemic, that communities and populations that don’t have reliable access to the Internet are being left out of economic and educational opportunities. There will be a real urgency in 2023 to build broadband capabilities to address this, and companies that have the supply for these projects will be best suited to help. Corning has been expanding our manufacturing capacity for optical cable, including the announcement of a new facility in Gilbert, Arizona that will help connect more people and communities.
Federal funding for these projects will also be key. Most of the funding from the infrastructure bill won’t be available until 2024, but money from the Capital Projects Fund is becoming available to states right now. However, there are several challenges. There’s still a lack of skilled labor needed to rapidly build out broadband capacity. Smaller, regional companies with a deep understanding of rural customers are key to closing the digital divide, but they also often lack the resources of bigger corporations for business development, grant writing, etc. It’s incumbent on us all to make sure everyone has the tools to be efficient and take on these projects successfully.
Rural is key to bridging the digital divide
Most of the broadband buildouts that have happened over the last 20 years have been in urban environments. It makes sense that companies have focused on high-density deployments because of economies of scale, but it’s left some in smaller communities behind.
The broadband projects of 2023 will focus on rural areas, places underserved in terms of connectivity. The challenge rural broadband deployments pose is density; it is much more expensive to connect every home and business in areas where there are fewer homes per mile. According to one study, it can cost more than $200k to bring connectivity to a single home in Alaska. It’s an extreme example but it demonstrates the challenge of scale and density.
It's an area where innovation is increasingly important. At Corning, we’ve spent the last several years thinking about how to solve that challenge, digging in with rural providers to find ways we can help them beyond just products. By developing low-labor solutions, such as pre-terminated connections that can be installed without specialized labor (something in very short supply these days), we’ve been able to help rural customers reduce costs and time to build broadband networks.
Interest in co-ops and municipal broadband is increasing – and collaboration is needed
One of the ways to reach some of these underserved areas is through one of the thousands of local cooperatives or through municipal broadband projects, where townships or local utility companies operate broadband networks. By leveraging not-for-profit models and longer investment horizons, these models can help get projects off the ground in lower density areas where another business case might fail, but there are differences in the products these organizations need and the way the networks are deployed.
Even when there is interest in municipal broadband, smaller cities and towns don’t always have the resources, the access to capital, or the institutional knowledge required to deploy it successfully. As these projects become more common, we’ll see more cities and towns collaborating with larger carriers, marrying the local knowledge and excellent customer service with the scale of bigger firms. In fact, the language in the federal funding bills rewards this kind of cooperation.
It will take a variety of different business models to truly connect the unconnected, from co-ops and municipal broadband to regional carriers, to the big players. A balanced approach is needed to get connectivity to harder-to-reach homes as well as cities.
Long range planning
We’ve spent so much time over the challenging past few years working with customers on supply chain concerns, and we have a better understanding of their needs than ever before.
In general, our industry has done a good job keeping up with the demands of connectivity over the past 20 years. However, the pandemic significantly accelerated consumer bandwidth needs. It’s not just that people are working remotely, but things like videoconferencing, collaborative tools and cloud computing are driving a need for higher speeds and greater capacity, particularly upload speeds.
Planning for broadband networks in the past was always more a matter of addressing immediate needs. But now, a long-term approach is needed to ensure we’re not just meeting today’s demands but building future proof, resilient networks for years to come. Due largely to the fact that fiber-based networks are long-lived, sustainability is increasing as a topic of discussion in our industry as well. Aside from being a long-term asset, fiber is highly reliable, reducing overall operational expenses such as environmentally unfriendly truck rolls. Fiber also avoids the rip-and-replace events that will not only fill our landfills but will be a cost burden in the future.
2023 will witness impressive strides to close the digital divide as we gain a greater understanding of how connectivity improves lives and communities. There is an urgency and a demand that must be met with effective solutions, flexible business models and a consistent supply chain that keeps projects on track.
Click here to learn more about Corning’s solutions for planning your community broadband network.