The deadline for the NTIA’s middle-mile grant program just closed, and the NTIA said that it received 235 applications totaling $5.5 billion in grant requests for a $1 billion grant program. Applicants in parts of Florida, South Carolina, Puerto Rico, and Alaska were given more time to apply due to recent natural disasters, so there may still be a few more requests. I think the program would have received many more requests, but folks already assumed it would be massively oversubscribed.
I was surprised when the IIJA legislation allocated only $1 billion to middle-mile fiber. That works out to only $20 million per state. That may sound like a lot, but to put it into perspective, California set aside $3.25 billion of its ARPA funding just for middle-mile. The one billion is nice, but it is not nearly enough to satisfy the nationwide need for more fiber backbones reaching into rural areas and connecting cities.
What exactly is middle-mile fiber? It’s the fiber used to connect communities to the Internet. Middle-mile fiber brings the transport that is needed to serve last-mile ISPs, cell towers, and any large broadband users like hospitals, factories, or other key anchor institutions.
It’s easy to understand why middle-mile fiber is needed. Much of rural America is connected to the Internet by a single fiber route provided by one of the big rural telephone companies. If there are fiber cuts or problems with the electronics on the only existing fiber route, an entire region will lose broadband. Just over the last month, I’ve talked with three counties that have experienced broadband outages this year that lasted from half a day to several days. It’s easy to imagine in today’s world how these outages can decimate a local economy.
Middle-mile is needed for several reasons. First, some of the fiber routes reaching remote areas were built in the 1980s and 1990s and are aging. There have been big improvements in the manufacturing of fiber since then, and new fiber is expected to have a much longer expected life, but some of the fiber built in those years is wearing out. Part of the problem with older fiber is that we used poor construction techniques decades ago, where we tugged fiber through conduits and created small stress points that went bad prematurely – we are much gentler with fiber installation today. Aerial fiber reaching into rural areas tends to follow the main roads, and aerial fibers have likely been cut over time from accidents that broke poles or storm damage.
The other reason we need more fiber is resiliency. Until recently we used the word redundancy to describe this need. Redundancy meant building fiber into rings so that a single fiber cut wouldn’t knock out a town or region from broadband. Resiliency stretches that definition further to talk about building fiber in such a way that it is better protected from fiber cuts and can be repaired more quickly.
The final reason we need more middle-mile fiber is cost – monopoly providers tend to charge a lot for transport on monopoly routes. Prices tumble when there is middle-mile competition.
Grants are needed to build rural middle-mile fiber because there is likely not going to be enough revenue on most rural fiber routes to justify funding a middle-mile route with normal financing. Grant funding for middle-mile makes the statement that rural communities are important. It doesn’t do much good to build rural last-mile networks if there is no affordable and reliable way to bring bandwidth to the new networks.
It will be interesting to see how the NTIA spreads the funding. I have to imagine that some of the grant requests are from states or groups of counties asking to build large statewide or regional networks. It’s likely that most of the grant requests hope to build fiber routes that immediately solve existing problems. But unfortunately, more than 80% of the requests are not going to get funded. Maybe the great demand for this grant program will prompt Congress to find more funding for middle-mile. It’s one of the best investments they can make.