Bringing fiber to far-flung rural areas is difficult enough; to do it amid a labor shortage requires products designed for simpler plug-and-play connection
By Barry Walton
Published: July 27, 2023
Over the last decade, the internet has grown from a convenient tool to a near necessity for modern life—a fact made abundantly clear during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Access to broadband means access to opportunity—from education to health care to quality of life. And still, the digital divide persists; today just 19% of Americans are connected by fiber, and that number is even lower in rural areas.
Thanks to bold government initiatives like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which allocates $65 billion for broadband deployment, there’s greater opportunity than ever before to connect the unconnected. Nevertheless, the process of bringing high-speed internet to more far-flung parts of the country remains challenging.
A shortage of specialized labor is partly to blame. The industry expects more than 175,000 new jobs will be needed over the next three years to engineer and build the fiber networks necessary to meet growing broadband demand. This deficit is even deeper in rural regions, where engineers and trained splicers typically must travel significant distances to job sites—making it harder to attract workers and compounding the time required to build out this much-needed infrastructure. Even when labor is available, the protracted timelines of rural fiber installation can easily result in budget overruns.
Corning believes everybody ought to have access to high-speed broadband because of the benefits that it brings. For the past 20 years, we’ve been helping network operators reach this goal with a line of preterminated solutions designed to speed the process of connecting homes, taking complicated splicing tasks out of the field and into the factory—meaning that less technical expertise is required to carry out the installation.
Time is Money
With traditional fiber optic cables, the process of connecting homes in rural areas takes a lot of time. Whereas crews can connect a development of 300 suburban homes with as little as 5km of cable, the same 300 homes in a rural setting will often require as much as 40km of cable. But the added material expense is only the tip of the iceberg for these projects; the real bulk of their hefty cost lies in the extensive specialized labor required to assemble the cabling from multiple reels of fiber.
First, a team of linemen will have to drive to the site and spend hours running the fiber between poles or in the ground. Next, fiber splicers—a job that requires significant technical training—will need to open the cables, splice them together, and test the connection. With such a protracted process, it’s no wonder that rural service providers have had such a difficult time finding the labor to build out their fiber-to-the-home networks.
Plug and Play
However, an easier solution exists: With preconnectorized fiber solutions like Corning’s FlexNAP™ system, broadband can be delivered to rural areas in far less time and without nearly as much specialized labor. Using precision-manufactured connectors, deployments require fewer splice events along the cable path and a reduction in total splices than traditional field deployments, dramatically cutting down the time and cost of extending cabling long distances to remote locations.
I can personally attest to these benefits: Last year my community of 1,600 residents in rural New Brunswick, Canada was connected to high-speed internet using our FlexNAP system. I followed the work in great anticipation of getting connected to gigabit service. The line crews started placing cable in March and I was connected in July. If this had been an all spliced network, it would have taken months longer to deploy.
Our FlexNAP system consists of preterminated access points engineered onto standard fiber distribution cables at customer-specified locations along their length. A tether cable then connects the access points to Corning’s Evolv® terminal with plug-and-play simplicity. Unlike conventional terminals, this one doesn’t need to be opened by a technician for maintenance or to add additional drops, so there’s less chance of damage from human error. All Evolv terminals incorporate Corning’s Pushlok™ Technology. At half the size of traditional hardened connectors, Pushlok connectors enable simpler, faster and more flexible deployments; installers can run lines to drop points with far greater speed and minimal tooling.
It’s important to consider that fiber deployments using preconnectorized solutions require greater upfront architecture planning than designs using typical field splicing. This planning phase will involve collecting span measurements of the infrastructure pathway and locations of homes along the cable run to determine the proper terminal placement and size. However, once designed in advance, the process of carrying out the fiber deployment can be up to five times faster per access point than solutions built on traditional cabling. Corning also offers services to aid in the planning, designing, and ordering of FlexNAP systems, including providing quality assurance reviews on customer designs and design upload into the configuration tool used to instruct manufacturing. In addition to working to ease the burden of the labor shortage through time-saving, less technical products, Corning has built upon its extensive fiber optic training background to create a workforce development program focused on equipping thousands of technicians and network specialists with the skills to design, engineer, install, and manage a growing fiber broadband network across the U.S.—a vital consideration as demand for fiber is projected to remain strong for the rest of the decade.
Bridging the digital divide and delivering connectivity to rural communities is a critical step in building for a more equitable future. With innovative products to ease the labor burden and elevate the economic viability of these projects, Corning is bringing the vision of broadband for all closer and closer to reality.