California Tackles Middle-Mile Fiber

The California legislature unanimously passed legislation in both the Assembly and Senate to fund $3.2 billion for middle-mile fiber and another $2 billion for last-mile networks. It’s an interesting use of broadband money and recognizes something that we don’t talk about enough. There are currently huge federal grants aimed at bringing good last-mile broadband to rural areas, but many of the rural places in America still have inadequate backhaul to reach connectivity to the Internet.

The California legislation recognizes several things. First, there is a lot of federal money currently aimed at providing last-mile networks, but barely any grant funding currently for middle-mile fiber. Second, I imagine legislators in California have all heard stories about how rural communities today lose all Internet access for hours or days at a time when the single fiber reaching the community gets cut or has an electronics failure.

The best fiber last-mile network in the world can’t function if the fiber that routes traffic to and from the Internet goes out of service. The middle-mile fiber networks in rural America are often on the oldest fiber still operating in the country. Much of these routes were built years ago by the big incumbent telephone companies to provide a fiber path to support long-distance traffic. Most of these networks are configured like a wagon wheel where straight-line fiber paths are built from rural communities to a hub larger city in a region.

Like the rest of rural networks maintained by the big telcos, many of these fiber routes have been poorly maintained, and still likely are using electronics that are past the useful life. I wrote a blog last year about how the communities in northwest Colorado banded together to build an alternative for the inadequate middle-mile network still operated by CenturyLink. The existing fiber would maddingly go out of service, sometimes for days, and would leave communities and vital institutions like hospitals and public safety with no Internet access. The communities built a new middle-mile network they labeled as Project THOR, and almost immediately after activation, the new network saved communities from another big regional middle-mile outage.

Rural communities not only need reliable middle-mile networks to deliver traffic to and from the Internet, but these networks must be redundant so that a single fiber cut doesn’t kill broadband for an entire community. That means building fiber rings. Too much of our daily lives now rely on broadband, and it is poisonous to a local economy when broadband access dies for an hour or a day.

The California middle-mile plan anticipates open-access where affordable transport can be provided to any ISP that wants to use the network. The legislation has a dual stated purpose – to first provide reliable broadband access to the rural parts of the state, but secondarily to make it easier for ISPs to serve in rural parts of the state. Buying connectivity on the traditional rural middle-mile networks is often unreasonably expensive and has been a barrier for serving pockets of rural customers.

The new networks will focus on reaching parts of the state where businesses and residents don’t have access to broadband faster than 25/3 Mbps. Almost invariably, in most states, these are the region that don’t have adequate middle-mile networks.

It’s always interesting to see any legislators pass something unanimously – it only happens when a topic is indisputably important. Once built, the new middle-mile fiber routes will serve rural California for many decades to come. There won’t be any headlines when this network is functioning and meeting its purpose – instead, there will no longer be news stories of small towns that lost broadband access for a few days.

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