Taking Advantage of Rural Fiber

As I keep reading about Verizon’s residential 5G roll-out I can’t help but thinking about how 5G might benefit rural America. It’s clear that the 5G technology requires fiber that is close to customers – it uses wireless to deliver the broadband for the last thousand feet or so, but must be fed from fiber. This means that the biggest cost and biggest impediment to rural 5G deployment will be the cost of deploying fiber.

But what about all of the fiber that already exists in rural America? I visit rural counties all of the time and there is usually a surprising amount of existing fiber. It’s used for purposes like connecting to electric substations, for connecting to schools, for connecting telco central offices and many other similar uses. How much benefit might rural America get if these fibers could be tapped for 5G?

One fiber provider that is often forgotten is the railroads. There are 233,000 miles of railroads in the US, and a decent percentage the tracks already has fiber. Union Pacific is the largest railroad with 32,000 miles of tracks, much of it with fiber. While many miles of track go through desolate places with no people, Union Pacific and the other railroads also pass numerous small rural towns and other pockets of rural households as well as portions of numerous larger towns and cities.

It’s not hard to picture a business case for somebody like Union Pacific to get into the 5G business. The company has toyed with the broadband idea for nearly twenty years and has done some trials as an ISP using the existing wireless technologies. If 5G works as promised they could have a robust wireless product that could deliver hundreds of Mbps to those living close enough to the railroad tracks. It’s a tricky business plan in that it probably requires door-do-door marketing to those within range of a 5G transmitter, but one has to think that Union Pacific alone might pass close to millions of homes. Just one railroad of their size could become a significant ISP if they are willing to leverage the fiber they have buried along their tracks.

The same goes with other fiber owners. Electric companies collectively own even more miles of rural fiber than the railroads. A number of electric companies have already become ISPs and are building fiber-to-the-premise. Tapping the 5G potential would be an interesting ISP model that provides broadband along narrow corridors – but that still could bring better broadband to millions of homes.

There are obviously numerous challenges to make this work. The technology is not here yet today to do this. Verizon developed their own 5G electronics and there is no commercially equivalent yet available to the average ISP. Fiber owners like a small electric cooperative or a school district might not own enough fiber to make a viable business plan. And even those with enough fiber need to fund and implement a new ISP business – which many fiber owners would consider as a distraction from their normal line of business.

But there is a lot of potential in existing rural fiber. Once the technology is reliable and cheap enough I can foresee ISPs willing to partner with or lease capacity from existing fiber owners. A 5G ISP could gain economy of scale if they can master the business plan of selling only to those who live within a thousand feet of an existing fiber. There will clearly be operational hurdles to overcome – because wireless is always trickier to operate than end-to-end fiber.

5G is not going to come close to solving the rural broadband problem because most rural homes are not close enough to existing fiber. Many owners of the existing rural fiber are not going to use it for this purpose or allow others to use it. There is still likely to be no business case for building new fiber to support rural 5G, and in fact, anybody doing that might still decide to go the whole way to the home with fiber.

But I can’t help envision how creative ISPs might be able to take advantage of the fiber that already exists along railroad lines or is used to reach schools. This might bring good broadband to a few million more rural homes, and that’s how we are going to solve the rural broadband dilemma – one home at a time.

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