While there is a critical need to get broadband access to underserved communities, the challenges are many, according to Daniel Corey, deputy national Intelligent Transportation Systems practice leader with AECOM, a Los Angeles-based infrastructure consulting firm. Corey, based in Philadelphia, is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
"What we are seeing is the need to connect people in rural communities," Corey told Rubber & Plastics News. "We need to address how we can use existing infrastructure and the Department of Transportation to build out the necessary infrastructure to connect fiber to the homes. We need to see what is there and what is needed—filling in those gaps is key."
With broadband access critical to so many parts of everyday living—emergency alerts, impact to the environment, jobs, social networking, homeland security and energy efficiency, to name a few—acceptably fast internet access is as fundamental to human life as shelter or food.
"We think that broadband will be part of the (American Jobs Plan) policy," Corey said. "We will hopefully see some movement in a couple weeks. Broadband is so important to so many crucial areas of our lives."
The wire and cable angle
What, exactly, will this plan require from a wire and cable standpoint?
It is clear that many areas will need either a ground-based or telephone pole-type infrastructure, and that is not cheap.
Fiber optic installation can cost anywhere between $130,000 and $300,000 per linear mile.
"The cost for building the infrastructure can vary," Corey said. "Where are you putting it? How are you installing it? Are you plowing the fiber into the ground or stretching lines? Every area is different—there is a lot of rock and geographic constraints in Colorado."
Another solution might be to address the national plan in regional steps, then tie the regions together. Regardless, a set of uniform standards will be necessary "so that everyone is playing from the same rulebook," he said.
"There are a couple flavors to what this might be," Corey said. "What's clear is that all of it will have to go through fiber at some point. In rural areas it might make sense to make the wireless connection regionally, such as at a Tribal Council office, where the hot spot could be utilized. A larger area could be served with such a hotspot."
For wire and cable companies, either those who braid the lines or those who make the cable shields with PVC or flexible thermoplastic elastomers, innovation will be key.
"I think it's a couple things for those companies," Corey said. "How can the industry develop and enhance what we have now to reduce costs? They need to consider different ways of doing things. Those innovations and ways to install things will be key."
Success of the National Broadband Plan also hinges on supply line efforts and avoiding being held in reserve—with what could be considered national security implications—to imports from China or another country.
Another challenge will be obtaining fiber optic infrastructure funding on its own merits, not as an earmark to another project. And wire and cable companies can play an influential role in pushing this narrative, Corey said.
"As part of the legislation (that is) funding broadband, we need funding that stands alone, not as it relates to another, larger infrastructure project," he said. "In areas that don't have internet access, it is expensive for the traditional telecommunication companies to go out there. How do we leverage support to help create that 'middle mile?' "
A final hurdle is identifying the infrastructure that already exists—a surprisingly obvious notion but one that too often can be an unknown quantity.
"One of our problems is that we don't have a good idea of what infrastructure we have," Corey said. "How do we understand what we don't have? Accuracy suffers when we do not have a national standard of what we are looking for."
Collaboration with local and state governments and private industry, especially with wire and cable companies, will be key.
"We need to understand where the gaps are," Corey said, adding that redundancy is important for safety and resiliency, but not when it manifests as inefficiency and bureaucracy.