Idle Fiber

Just in the last few months, I have talked to several rural residents and businesses who are furious that they can’t get fiber broadband even though there is fiber close to their home or business. They can’t understand why the uncaring company that owns the fiber can’t make the tiny investment needed to connect them to fiber that’s already tantalizingly close to them. I’m pretty sure that none of these folks are satisfied with my explanations of why they aren’t likely to get connected. It’s likely that these folks won’t get fiber for the reasons discussed below.

The most common reason is that the fiber that runs close to the home and business is likely middle-mile fiber. This is fiber that runs between two distant points. At the extreme, the middle-mile fiber might be part of a long-haul fiber route connecting two distant states. It’s economically infeasible to break into the middle-mile fiber. I recently had a conversation with a long-haul fiber provider that quoted a price of $2 million for a long-term contract to snag a single fiber on a fiber route that runs between the East Coast and the Midwest. Obviously, these middle-mile routes are too valuable to serve last-mile customers.

But carriers are also usually reluctant to break into shorter transport fiber routes, like fiber between two neighboring communities. What will drive people nuts is that a fiber owner could use these types of middle-mile fiber routes to serve customers if there are spare fibers. But there are two reasons to not use middle-mile routes for last-mile service. The first is technical. Every fiber splice point added to an existing fiber will slightly degrade a fiber’s performance. If a middle-mile route wasn’t designed to have multiple splice points, the owner is not going to put the middle-mile investment at risk.

But the main reason carriers don’t break into existing middle-mile fiber routes is economic. There is often no reasonable business case for serving just a few customers off an existing fiber. It’s expensive to add a few customers onto an existing transport fiber route. An ISP would have to build an FTTP hub in the area. That might mean land, a hut, core electronics, and an ongoing utility bill to keep electricity at the new hut. The ISP also must consider the cost of the fiber drops – which get expensive after a few hundred feet. The ISP also now haw to make sure there is a technician within easy range of the new customers. Unless there is an opportunity for adding a lot of customers from a new splice point, it probably makes no financial sense. You can’t just drop off a fiber to serve just a few people – the math for doing so is likely not pretty.

There is one situation that I think rightfully infuriates folks. State legislators have typically made sure that fiber built with state funding can’t be used for commercial purposes. This is obviously done at the prodding of big ISP lobbyists. This means that fibers built to connect to city halls or to connect schools together can’t be used for anything else if these fibers include a whiff of state funding.

State-funded fibers don’t just come close to rural households – the fibers often run through towns and cities, often deep into residential neighborhoods to reach schools, firehouses, and other government buildings. In these kinds of cases, it would be economically feasible to use such fiber as the launch point for last-mile fiber.

People can’t blame the school systems or the counties that build such fiber – the fault comes from restriction at the state level. I was flabbergasted a few decades ago the first time I encountered this, but I’ve come to learn that this is a common practice. Even many states that allow municipal competition usually draw a line for using state-funded fiber for any commercial purposes. Such fiber might sit idle and unused forever because of the way they were originally funded.

The final category of fiber that drives people crazy comes from commercial entities that elect to use the fiber only for themselves. A perfect example of this is Duke Power, the electric utility in my part of the world. The company used to have a thriving wholesale fiber business that leased fibers to ISPs. But a few years ago, the company decided to completely get out of the fiber leasing business, and the company now doesn’t let any other entities share its fiber. The utility probably owns the most extensive fiber network in my part of the world, including fiber that reaches deep into neighborhoods. The utility cited security as the reason to stop sharing fiber, but there are easy ways to share fiber with responsible carriers that add zero security risks.

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