Excess Dark Fiber

A few weeks ago I wrote about a recommendation from one of the BDAC subcommittees to expand the base for the fees collected to fund the Universal Service Fund. BDAC is the acronym for the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committees created by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to advise on ideas to promote better broadband.

That BDAC subcommittee is the one that is tasked with developing Model State Codes – ideas for states to consider in legislation. The subcommittee came up with another real doozy of an idea. In their latest draft report to the FCC in Article 4 – Rights to Access to Existing Network Support Infrastructure,  the group suggests that broadband could be more affordably expanded if excess fiber built by municipalities was made available to commercial providers for cheap prices.

The BDAC subcommittee suggests that any excess municipal fiber that is not in a 50-year fiber plan must be made available for lease to other carriers. The group also oddly proposes that this would also apply to municipal buildings, I guess to save carriers from having to build huts. I can think of a hundred reasons why forcing government buildings to house carriers is an extremely dumb idea, but let’s look closer at the fiber idea.

The BDAC suggestion clearly comes from the big ISPs who would love to get their hands onto municipal fiber for a bargain price. The way I know that the idea comes from the big ISPs is that they are suggesting that this would only be applied to municipal fiber. If the group had been looking for ways to improve broadband deployment they would have expanded this idea to include all excess dark fiber, regardless of the owner.

I always hear that one of the reasons we don’t have more fiber-to-the-home is that there is not enough fiber already in our communities. I don’t think that’s true. If I look at my city of Asheville, NC I would bet there is already fiber within a quarter mile of everybody in the City. The City might own fiber to connect schools or other government buildings. There is probably some fiber that supports public-safety networks and traffic lights. The incumbent cable company and telco deploys fiber to get to neighborhood nodes. There is fiber built to reach to large businesses. There’s fiber built to get to cellular towers. There is certainly fiber built to places like our large regional hospital complex, the universities, and various federal government office buildings. There is fiber owned by the electric company, and perhaps also by the gas and water companies. And as a regional hub at the nexus of a few major highways, there is likely long-haul fiber passing through here on the way to somewhere else, plus NCDOT fiber used for more local uses.

I’m positive that if all of this fiber was mapped that Asheville would look like a fiber-rich City – as would many places. Even rural counties often have a surprising amount of existing fiber that satisfies these same kinds of purposes. Yet most existing fiber was built to satisfy a single purpose and isn’t available for all of the other ways that fiber could benefit a community. Asheville might be fiber rich, but that fiber is off-limits to somebody interested in building fiber-to-the-home.

That’s the implied justification for the BDAC suggestion – that excess fiber shouldn’t sit idle if it could benefit better broadband. That’s also the basis for my suggestion of expanding this concept to all fiber, not just to government fiber. If AT&T builds a 24-fiber cable to a cell tower and will never use more than a few strands, then why shouldn’t they be required to sell the excess fiber capacity for cheap if it benefits the community?

The idea of forcing big ISPs to make fiber available is not a new one. In the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress required the big telcos to unbundle their excess dark fiber and make it available to anybody. However, the telcos actively resisted that order and began immediately to petition the FCC to soften the requirement, and as a consequence, very little dark fiber has ever been provided to others. I helped a few dozen companies try to get access to telco dark fiber and only a few succeeded. However, Congress was on the right track by recognizing that idle dark fiber is a valuable asset that could benefit the larger community.

I wrote a blog a few weeks back that talked about how Romania has the best broadband in Europe based upon hundreds of small ISPs that have built fiber just in their immediate neighborhood. I think that if all of the excess fiber capacity in a city was made available that it would unleash all sorts of creative entrepreneurs to do similar things. I know I would consider building a fiber network in my own neighborhood if there was a way for me to backhaul to a larger partner ISP.

However, the BDAC suggestion is not quite as altruistic as it might sound – the BDAC subcommittee is not worried that the public is missing out on the benefits from excess dark fiber. Remember that the big ISPs largely control the BDAC committees and I think this suggestion comes from AT&T and Comcast that want to punish any city with the audacity to build fiber to compete with them. This requirement would allow the big ISPs to take advantage of those competitive networks to effectively squash municipal competition.

But we shouldn’t let the vindictive nature of the suggestion erase the larger concept. I’ve rarely gotten a chance in our industry to say that, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander” – but this is that opportunity. The BDAC has correctly identified the fact that broadband deployment would be easier everywhere if we could unleash the capacity of unused dark fiber. The BDAC subcommittee just didn’t take this idea to the natural conclusion by applying it to all existing fiber. I’m certain that if a state embraced applying this concept to all fiber that we’d see the big ISP screaming about confiscation of capital – which is exactly what it is.

3 thoughts on “Excess Dark Fiber

  1. Doug, here’s a cautionary tale of a municipality that built an 864 strand cable to license out as dark fiber, to enable economic development and broadband competition, but, alas, it couldn’t get out of its own way and has failed to license a single strand after 4+ years:

    https://www.arlnow.com/2019/02/07/exclusive-arlington-spent-4-1-million-on-a-10-mile-dark-fiber-network-now-no-ones-using-it/

    Their own “Broadband Advisory Committee” has a member fo the FCC’s BDAC on it as well. Coincidence? Their BAC full report is an interesting read, listing all of the self-inflicted injuries that have created this situation:

    https://s26551.pcdn.co/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/BAC-Document-14-JAN-19-FINAL.pdf

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    • I understand that there are extreme cases, but the same thing exists in the world for commercial providers who build networks and then go out of business.

      To target this concept at municipal providers, regardless of the scale of the particular situation – be that 2 extra fiber or 864 – is still confiscation of capital. The fact is that the vast majority of fiber has significant excess pairs.

      This concept either has to apply to everybody in the industry or to nobody. I see very little difference between your examples and a typical fiber running to a cellular tower that has 24 fibers and uses 2. It’s still excess fiber that will never get used. You can apply exactly the same logic to it.

      I stand by “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander’.

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      • I agree with your assessment that “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander”. My point was really more that “the devil is in the details” and, a municipal entity (or even a commercial entity) that has no understanding of the competitive marketplace and industry standards and economic requirements of various dark fiber use scenarios and business cases is much more prone to inadvertently creating unnecessary obstacles to leasing excess dark fiber despite their “good intentions”.

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