Dig Once Rules Coming

US Representative Anna Eshoo of California has submitted a ‘dig once’ bill every year since 2009, and the bill finally passed in the House. For this to become law the bill still has to pass the Senate, but it got wide bipartisan support in the House.

Dig Once is a simple concept that would mandate that when roads are under construction that empty conduit is places in the roadbed to provide inexpensive access for somebody that wants to bring fiber to an area.

Here are some specifics included in the bill:

  • This would apply to Federal highway projects, but also to state projects that get any federal funding. It encourages states to apply this more widely.
  • For any given road project there would be ‘consultation’ with local and national telecom providers and conduit would be added if there is an expected demand for fiber within 15 years.
  • The conduit would be installed under the hard surface of the road at industry standard depths.
  • The conduits would contain pull tape that would allow for easy pulling of fiber in the future.
  • Handholes would be placed at intervals consistent with industry best practices.

This all sounds like good stuff, but I want to play devil’s with some of the requirements.

The initial concept of dig once was to never pass up the opportunity to place conduit into an ‘open ditch’. The cost of digging to put in conduit probably represents 80% of the cost of deployment in most places. But this law is not tossing conduit into open construction ditches. It instead requires that the conduit be placed at depths that meet industry best practices. And that is going to mean digging at a foot or more deeper than the construction that was planned for the roadbed.

To understand this you have to look at the lifecycle of roads. When a new road is constructed the road bed is typically dug from 18 inches deep to 3 feet deep depending upon the nature of the subsoil and also based upon the expected traffic on the road (truck-heavy highways are built to a higher standard than residential streets). Typically roads are then periodically resurfaced several times when the road surface deteriorates. Resurfacing usually requires going no deeper than a few inches into the roadbed. But at longer intervals of perhaps 50 years (differs by local conditions) a road is fully excavated to the bottom of the roadbed and the whole cycle starts again.

This means that the conduit needs to be placed lower than the planned bottom of the roadbed. Otherwise, when the road is finally rebuilt all of the fiber would be destroyed. And going deeper means additional excavation and additional cost. This means the conduit would not be placed in the ‘open ditch’. The road project will have dug out the first few feet of the needed excavation, but additional, and expensive work would be needed to put the conduit at the safe depth. In places where that substrate is rock this could be incredibly expensive, but it wouldn’t be cheap anywhere. It seems to me that this is shuttling the cost of deploying long-haul fiber projects to road projects, rather than to fiber providers. There is nothing wrong with that if it’s the national policy and there are enough funds to pay for it – but I worry that in a country that already struggles to maintain our roads that this will just means less road money for roads since every project just got more expensive.

The other issue of concern to me is handholes and access to the fiber. This is pretty easy for an Interstate and there ought to be fiber access at every exit. There are no customers living next to Interstates and these are true long-haul fibers that stretch between communities.

But spacing access points along secondary roads is a lot more of a challenge. For instance, if you want a fiber route to be used to serve businesses and residents in a city this means an access point every few buildings. In more rural areas it means an access point at every home or business. Adding access points to fiber is the second most labor-intensive part of the cost after the cost of construction. If access points aren’t where they are needed, in many cases the fiber will be nearly worthless. It’s probably cheaper in the future to build a second fiber route with the proper access points than it is to try to add them to poorly designed existing fiber route.

This law has great intentions. But it is based upon the concept that we should take advantage of construction that’s already being paid for. I heartily support the concept for Interstate and other long-haul highways. But the concept is unlikely to be sufficient on secondary roads with lots of homes and businesses. And no matter where this is done it’s going to add substantial cost to highway projects.

I would love to see more fiber built where it’s needed. But this bill adds a lot of costs to building highways, which is already underfunded in the country. And if not done properly – meaning placing fiber access points where needed – this could end up building a lot of conduit that has little practical use for a fiber provider. By making this a mandate everywhere it is likely to mean spending a whole lot of money on conduit that might never be used or used only for limited purposes like feeding cellular towers. This law is not going to create fiber that’s ready to serve neighborhoods or those living along highways.

The WISP Dilemma

For the last decade I have been working with many rural communities seeking better broadband. For the most part these are places that the large telcos have neglected and never provided with any functional DSL. Rural America has largely rejected the current versions of satellite broadband because of the low data caps and because the latency won’t support streaming video or other real-time activities. I’ve found that lack of broadband is at or near the top of the list of concerns in communities without it.

But a significant percentage of rural communities have access today to WISPs (wireless ISPs) that use unlicensed frequency and point-to-multipoint radios to bring a broadband connection to customers. The performance of WISPs varies widely. There are places where WISPs are delivering solid and reliable connections that average between 20 – 40 Mbps download. But unfortunately there are many other WISPs that are delivering slow broadband in the 1 – 3 Mbps range.

The WISPs that have fast data speeds share two characteristics. They have a fiber connection directly to each wireless transmitter, meaning that there are no bandwidth constraints. And they don’t oversubscribe customers. Anybody who was on a cable modem five or ten years ago understands oversubscription. When there are too many people on a network node at the same time the performance degrades for everybody. A well-designed broadband network of any technology works best when there are not more customers than the technology can optimally serve.

But a lot of rural WISPs are operating in places where there is no easy or affordable access to a fiber backbone. That leaves them with no alternative but to use wireless backhaul. This means using point-to-point microwave radios to get bandwidth to and from a tower.

Wireless backhaul is not in itself a negative issue. If an ISP can use microwave to deliver enough bandwidth to a wireless node to satisfy the demand there, then they’ll have a robust product and happy customers. But the problems start happening when networks include multiple ‘hops’ between wireless towers. I often see WISP networks where the bandwidth goes from tower to tower to tower. In that kind of configuration all of the towers and all of the customers on those towers are sharing whatever bandwidth is sent to the first tower in the chain.

Adding hops to a wireless network also adds latency and each hop means it takes longer for the traffic to get to and from customers at the outer edges of one of these wireless chains. Latency, or time lag, in signal is an important factor in being able to perform real-time functions like data streaming, voice over IP, gaming, or functions like maintaining connections to an on-line class or a distant corporate WAN.

Depending upon the brand of the radios and the quality of the internet backbone connection, a wireless transmitter that is connected directly to fiber can have a latency similar to that of a cable or DSL network. But when chaining multiple towers together the latency can rise significantly, and real-time applications start to suffer at latencies of 100 milliseconds or greater.

WISPs also face other issues. One is the age of the wireless equipment. There is no part of our industry that has made bigger strides over the past ten years than the manufacturing of subscriber microwave radios. The newest radios have significantly better operating characteristics than radios made just a few years ago. WISPs are for the most part relatively small companies and have a hard time justifying upgrading equipment until it has reached its useful life. And unfortunately there is not much opportunity for small incremental upgrades of equipment. The changes in the technologies have been significant enough that that upgrading a node often means replacing the transmitters on towers as well as subscriber radios.

The final dilemma faced by WISPs is that they often are trying to serve customers that are in locations that are not ideally situated to receive a wireless signal. The unlicensed frequencies require good line-of-sight and also suffer degraded signals from foliage, rain and other impediments and it’s hard to serve customer reliably who are surrounded by trees or who live in places that are somehow blocked by the terrain.

All of the various issues mean that reviews of WISPs vary as widely as you can imagine. I was served by a WISP for nearly a decade and since I lived a few hundred feet from the tower and had a clear line-of-sight I was always happy with the performance I received. I’ve talked to a few people recently who have WISP speeds as fast as 50 Mbps. But I have also talked to a lot of rural people who have WISP connections that are slow and have high latency that provides a miserable broadband experience.

It’s going to be interesting to see what happens to some of these WISPs as rural telcos deploy CAF II money and provide a faster broadband alternative that will supposedly deliver at least 10 Mbps download. WISPs who can beat those speeds will likely continue to thrive while the ones delivering only a few Mbps will have to find a way to upgrade or will lose most of their customers.