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Five Questions With Corning’s Kara Mullaley on the Fiber Connect 2021 Conference

By Kara Mullaley
Published: July 27, 2021

This year’s Fiber Connect conference comes at a time of both unprecedented demand for broadband, and a growing recognition of fiber as the best technology to meet the need. In a conversation with Kara Mullaley, Market Development Manager at Corning Optical Communications, we explore where the industry is headed and the challenges it faces as it grows.

What’s different about Fiber Connect this year?

We are celebrating a number of important milestones. First, it’s the 20th anniversary of the Fiber Broadband Association, the group that sponsors the event. Corning is happy to have been a major supporter of both the group and the event from the beginning. The mood this year will be more buoyant, as it is obviously the first “real-life” event we’ve had since the beginning of the pandemic, and we’re very excited to be back. 

It’s also the 50th anniversary of optical fiber, and a great time to take stock of the success we’ve had as an industry, and how far we’ve come. It’s now widely accepted that fiber is critical to the success of modern society. This fact is reflected by the record attendance at this year’s event and the variety of new participants who wouldn’t have been interested in fiber even a few years ago. 

Why are there so many new participants this year?

More than any other single factor, the pandemic has made businesses, governments, and other institutions recognize that they can no longer put off broadband investments, and that fiber is the best way to future-proof growth.

Eighteen months ago, many of these same people were hesitant to make investments in fiber, concerned either about the expense, whether there would be enough demand, or both. The last year-and-a-half of widespread remote work, schooling, and entertainment changed that. Clients that were skeptical two years ago are now asking us how quickly they can build a network.

That new willingness is reflected in the attendee composition of this year’s Fiber Connect, and we’re seeing whole new kinds of enterprises show interest. Electrical cooperatives are looking to set up fiber networks in rural and underserved areas, for one. We’re also seeing representatives from municipal governments, wireless operators, tier two and tier three telephone companies, and cable TV companies. Everyone is working to close the digital divide. 

In one sense it’s comparable to rural electrification 100 years ago. An investment that at first was optional quickly became mandatory. Without that investment a century ago, fewer people would be living in rural areas today. With millions of people working remotely during the pandemic, it became obvious that helping rural communities thrive requires investments in broadband. 

Speaking of rural electrification, what’s the role of government in closing the digital divide? 

There are a number of ways government can help, and is helping, either through funding or policy changes.

Funding may get more attention, but policy changes are critical. Some legislative or regulatory areas that could be reconsidered include the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of minimum broadband speed – currently 25 Mbps for download and 3 Mbps for upload time.

Funding of course matters as well, and there are a number of federal programs available – USDA’s ReConnectConnect America Fund, the LIFT America Act, or Rural Utility Service are some – as well as a lot of private equity willing to invest. These large and growing pools of capital will be a major topic at this year’s conference, with many panels addressing how to secure funding through government or public/private partnerships.

Municipalities now recognize that this is not just about business. It’s about people living where there they want to live, and helping small, rural communities thrive. Governments have to be part of that conversation.

What are the biggest challenges in meeting all of this extra demand? 

Many different constituents – OEMs, municipalities, regional communications companies – are all anxious to build, but, like other areas in the U.S. economy, have a major shortage of skilled workers. 

This shortage exists all up and down the chain, not just in connection or installation. It’s everything: installers, network designers, planning engineers, maintenance people. It’s a major obstacle to growth.

How is Corning aiding efforts to speed up installation and get around this shortage? 

The good news is that there are many ways to build a network. Our pre-connectorized solutions, which don’t require the same level of skilled technician to install, have for years helped broadband networks get around this and expand the potential labor pool.

We’re building on those innovations – and helping to meet current and future demand – with our new Evolv solutions. These are half the size of other terminals and fully sealed. Because of this they’re much easier to install and can be used in a wider variety of locales, indoors or outdoors. Evolv terminals are great for 5G deployments, or any installation where space is limited, where deployment needs to happen quickly, or where aesthetic considerations – like making sure the terminal blends into the environment around it – are especially important.

But we’re also emphasizing education and job training. We want to teach people how to cost-effectively build networks. Part of this happens through our Community Broadband University, but we also host webinars and do a lot of outreach to community colleges in partnership with the Fiber Broadband Association. It’s how we are helping build a highly-skilled, well-paid workforce to meet broadband demand both today and tomorrow. 

If your organization is facing any challenges in this area, please consider registering for Fiber Connect 2021. It’s a great opportunity to develop business, see cutting-edge technologies demonstrated, and meet with your peers in the industry and outside experts. 

Kara Mullaley is the Global FTTx Market Development Manager with Corning Optical Communications. Kara has 19 years of experience in the telecommunications industry, primarily supporting major network operators in the deployment of broadband networks worldwide. She is a subject matter expert on best practices for fiber deployment, architecture, and solutions to address tough deployment challenges, including meeting today's rising bandwidth and application demands. She has delivered technical sessions at various FTTx conferences and has also been published in several trade publications.

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