Measuring Sustainability

I’ve seen folks around the country suggesting that State Broadband offices ought to put a priority on sustainability when selecting winners of broadband grant funding. It’s a concept that has instant appeal, but I immediately asked myself what it means. How do you measure sustainability in a way that can be used to score grant requests?

It’s likely that most folks would agree on the definition of sustainability. If we are going to use government grant money to build a broadband network, we want that network to be providing broadband service for as long as possible. We expect sustainability for other kinds of infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and buildings, so why shouldn’t we expect the same thing from a grant-funded broadband network?

But what does sustainable mean for a broadband network? The first test of sustainability is the expected life of the assets being constructed.

  • The longest-lived asset that is being constructed with grants is conduit. There is no reason why a well-maintained conduit system shouldn’t still be fully functional a century from now.
  • There are big debates about the economic life of fiber. If you go by the economic lives allowed by IRS depreciation, then the expected life of fiber is 25 or 30 years. We know that’s ridiculous because there is plenty of forty-year-old fiber still chugging along in the field. We also know that fiber constructed today is far better than fiber built forty years ago. The manufacturers have learned to make higher-quality glass with less impurities. But the big change in the industry is that the folks that install fiber have learned techniques that minimize damage during construction. Poor handling of fiber manifests twenty years later as micro-fissures – and that means cloudy glass. Nobody will give an expected life for well-maintained fiber, but scientists at some of the manufacturers have privately told me that they think it’s at least 75 years – we’ll just have to wait to find out.
  • The assets that cause the most concern for sustainability are electronics – be that fiber electronics or fixed wireless electronics. All electronics must periodically be replaced. I’ve seen some fiber electronics last fifteen years – but that seems to be near the upper end of economic life. The general industry wisdom is that fixed wireless systems have to be replaced every 7 to 10 years.
  • We largely eliminated some ISPs from grant eligibility due to poor sustainability. For example, low-orbit satellites like Starlink are designed to only last 5 to 7 and then fall from orbit. It’s hard to make an argument that grant funding buys great value with this kind of asset.

This all means that the sustainability of electronics must be a concern for all technologies. Any ISP that wins grant funding will likely be replacing some electronics within a decade. One test of any ISP on sustainability is the financial ability and willingness to replace those electronics. That’s hard to judge.

There is another measure of sustainability that is even harder to measure. A big factor in sustainability is the operating philosophy of the ISP that owns the networks. We know there is a big range of what I would call corporate responsibility between ISPs.

If we go strictly by the past, then the ISPs that have the most likely chance of operating a sustainable network for the long term are cooperatives or other ISPs that expect to still be serving the same customers fifty years from now. But not all cooperatives are the same. We see this when looking at how some electric cooperatives have allowed their poles to deteriorate badly over time.

Next in line in trustworthiness might be small telcos that have been around for as long as a hundred years. But over the last few decades, a large percentage of these companies sold to larger ISPs – so, the question for a grant reviewer is if the small telco that gets a broadband grant today will be the same owner of the network a decade or two from now?

A big question mark for many folks is the large ISPs. We saw the big telephone companies let copper and DSL networks rot in place by basically ceasing all maintenance years ago. This was clearly done as a cost savings measure. These companies will argue that there was no sense in continuing to support a dying technology, but we know that is nonsense. The copper networks in places like Germany were well-maintained and still offer DSL today with speeds in many places over 100 Mbps. The big telcos decided to unilaterally cut costs at the expense of customers. Should a grant office award funding to a company that has already failed the public once before? I’m guessing that grant offices will make awards to the big companies by reasoning that fiber networks will last a long time, so maintenance doesn’t matter. But I would argue just the opposite. I think a fiber network can deteriorate even faster without good maintenance than a copper network because the technology is less forgiving. There is still 20-year old DSL cards chugging away, something that likely won’t happen with fiber. If an ISP ignores and doesn’t maintain fiber network electronics, a fiber network could quickly turn into a brick.

I’ve not said anything above that is not common knowledge. But I am at a loss of how to turn what we’ve learned from the past behavior of ISPs in a way to consider sustainability when awarding grants. If sustainability was the most important factor in awarding a grant, I personally would give all of the money to cooperatives and none to big ISPs. And I wouldn’t fund technologies that must be largely replaced within a decade. This is probably why nobody is asking me to award grants!