A new long-haul fiber provider is entering the market. 3Red8 has announced plans a plan to build across the U.S. The initial network to be completed by 2027 is shown on the map below. The network is starting in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. The first route will be between Myrtle Beach, SC and Ashburn, VA. Myrtle Beach will connect to undersea fiber routes, and Ashburn is one of the major Internet hub sites for the east coast, along with New York City and Atlanta.

This is good news for the whole country. At the exponential rate of broadband growth, we don’t have enough backhaul fiber in place to handle the volumes of Internet traffic that will be carried a decade or two from now. It’s great to see new providers jumping in to fill that need. I wrote a blog earlier this year about a similar effort by Zayo, which is beefing up a lot of its existing fiber routes to 300 Gbps transport while also investing in new fiber routes. Level 3, AT&T, and others are also making investments.

3Red8 will act like all long-haul fiber networks and will sell transport to the big carriers that want to transport data between data centers, for cellular networks, and for similar large broadband uses.

However, 3Red8 has a business plan that is unique among long-haul fiber providers. Like all long-haul fiber, the new network will have fiber repeater huts roughly every fifty miles along the network to boost the fiber signal – something that’s mandatory to send fiber signals for long distances. 3Red8 says it will make each of these locations available to connect to small ISPs, communities, and other local needs for connectivity along the routes. Many long-haul fiber providers do not like making small connections on long-haul routes because the revenue is so good from the long-haul business that they don’t want to set aside any fibers for this kind of business.

But that’s only the beginning of the 3Red8 story. The company plans to give back to the communities it passes with its networks. 3Red8 plans to partner with ISPs and communities along its routes to help solve the digital divide. It will do this in several ways. First, it will offer affordable connectivity to local ISPs willing to serve last-mile broadband. That’s going to be a valuable benefit where the network passes through places like Appalachia and other unserved and underserved communities.

If that’s all that the company planned to do, it would be a boon to many local communities. But 3Red8 plans to go a lot further. The company is already working to establish a revenue-sharing arrangement where communities along the fiber will be funded with some portion of the revenue generated by the long-haul network. This funding can be used to support local ISPs, cooperatives, or municipalities to help find long-term broadband solutions. It will be up to communities to decide to best use this funding. One community might use this funding to help support broadband to farms. Another might use it to extend broadband into rough mountain terrain. Communities might use the funding for digital literacy programs.

I’ve already seen that this program is real because the company is already meeting with communities in North Carolina and nearby Virginia. I know that some of the communities along the fiber routes are excited about a collaboration with 3Red8.

It’s wonderful to see a company that gets it. Most of the large ISPs have a charitable arm, often through a foundation funded by the corporation. I don’t want to denigrate the charitable efforts of any big corporation, but they tend to give money away in public ways that make for good photo ops. 3Red8’s vision is different – they are going to be profitable from transporting Internet traffic from coast to coast, and they want to use some of that profit to make sure that everybody close to their fiber network can get the full benefits of good broadband.

“But I Live Close to Fiber”

I often hear from people who are excited that fiber is coming to their neighborhood. They see work crews installing fiber and they hope this means that they are finally getting fiber to their homes. But unless folks are in one of the lucky neighborhoods where some ISP is making the big investment in last mile fiber-to-the-home, the chances are good that the new fiber that is tantalizingly close is not going to reach them.

There are a lot of fiber networks in the country that are being used for purposes other than serving homes. Consider some of the following reasons why fiber might be close to you, but unavailable:

  • Electric companies have private fiber networks to connect substations and other electric company facilities. In the last few years we’ve seen some of the biggest electric companies pull back from sharing fiber with others because of security concerns for the electric grid. It’s not uncommon for the electric company to be the only tenant on such fibers.
  • Telcos have fiber networks that connect their central offices in various towns. They have more extensive local fiber networks that are built to supply neighborhood DSL cabinets. If your neighborhood has DSL speeds greater than 15 Mbps, the chances are good that there is telco fiber close to you.
  • Cable companies have fiber for similar reasons. Cable networks are subdivided into neighborhood nodes. These nodes used to be large and served upwards of a thousand homes, but cable companies have reduced node sized to eliminate the problem of their broadband slowing down in the evenings. Nodes might now be as small as a hundred homes – and since each node is fiber fed there is cable company fiber somewhere near to every cluster of homes.
  • A large number of cities have built fiber networks to connect city hall, libraries, firehouses, water utility facilities and other city locations. This has largely been done to reduce the high payments to ISPs to connect these locations with broadband. While many municipal FTTH projects got started by expanding these networks, the vast majority of the municipal fiber networks serve only the city. There’s a decent chance that there is fiber at the library, firehouse or other city facility near your neighborhood.
  • Similarly there are a number of states that have built state-wide fiber networks to connect their own facilities. These networks are often shared with anchor institutions like city halls and other local and state government buildings. Most of these networks are prohibited by state law from sharing the fiber with last-mile fiber builds, even municipal ones.
  • Many school districts have fiber networks to connect schools to provide gigabit speeds. While some of these networks can be shared with other providers, the majority of these networks are used only for the school district.
  • Various companies including telcos, cable companies, and big ISPs build fiber to reach large businesses or industrial parks. The larger downtown buildings in most cities now also have fiber.
  • There is now a major push for building fiber to large apartment complexes. For example, a lot of the push by AT&T to pass millions of locations with fiber is mostly being done by reaching apartment complexes.
  • Today every cell tower is fed with fiber. There will be a lot of new fiber built to reach the smaller cell sites we’ll see on utility and light poles.
  • There are long-haul fiber networks that only function to connect cities and major markets. These networks rarely allow any connections to the network other than at major network nodes.
  • Many cities now have fiber networks that feed traffic signals and traffic cameras. Because of the way that these networks are funded with highway money, these fiber networks are often inexplicably separate from other municipal fiber networks.
  • State highway departments also now operate a lot of fiber networks for their own use to feed the signs that provide traffic information and to feed cameras that are used to monitor traffic.

The chances are that if you live in any kind of populated area, even in rural counties, that there are several of these fiber networks close to you. If you live in a city it’s likely that you can easily walk to half a dozen different fiber networks – none which are being used to bring fiber to your home.  The chances are high that the new fiber you see being built is not being built for you.

Fiber is Not Always Fiber

Fiber CableI had a conversation today that is the same one I’ve had many times. I was talking to a City that has already built hundreds of miles of fiber to connect municipal buildings. They were shocked to hear that the network they had built had very little value if they wanted to build FTTP for all homes and businesses. To do that would require building additional fiber on just about every route they had built in the past.

In order to understand why this is so, you have to understand that there are several very different kinds of fiber networks in the world – long-haul, distribution and last mile. Each kind of these networks is built in a very different way that doesn’t make them useful for the other two uses.

Consider long-haul fiber. This is the fiber that is built to connect cities and to stretch across the country and the world. The key to having an affordable long-haul fiber route is to carry each leg of the network as far as possible without stopping and having to repeat the signals. So generally long-haul fibers will only stop in major POPs in cities or wherever necessary along the way at repeater sites that are used to boost the signal.

I have a client who is sitting on one of the major east-west Interstates in the country. Every major long-haul carrier in the country is passing very near to him with owned or leased capacity on the long-haul route. My client was shocked when not one carrier would come off of the long-haul route to provide him with bandwidth. But it’s very costly to break into long-haul fibers, and every splice creates a little interference, and so long-haul providers are generally extremely reluctant to provide bandwidth anywhere except at established POPs along the fiber.

Distribution fiber is similar to long-haul fiber, but within local fiber networks. Distribution fibers are built to connect very specific points. The networks that cable companies build to get to their neighborhood nodes are a distribution network. So are networks built by telcos to reach DSL cabinets or networks built by cities to reach traffic signals and networks built by school boards to connect schools. These networks were generally built for the specific purpose of reaching those end points.

Distribution fiber routes share the same issue as the long-haul routes and the companies that own them are generally reluctant to break these routes along the way to connect to somebody that the network was not designed for. Certainly distribution fibers have very little use for providing service to many homes or businesses. There are generally not enough pairs of fiber in distribution routes, but more importantly they are not built with access points along the way.

The major characteristic of last mile fibers (and the one that makes them the most expensive) is the presence of many access points – using handholes, manholes, splice boxes or other ways to connect to the fiber where it’s needed. Providing these access points every few hundred feet adds a lot of cost to building fiber, and it’s very expensive, and often impossible to add access points after the fact to existing distribution fiber.

This is why I actually laughed out loud last year when I read about Comcast’s 2 gigabit product that they would sell to people who were close enough to their fiber. The Comcast fiber network is almost entirely a distribution network that connects from a central hub or ring to electronic boxes in neighborhoods known as nodes. When Comcast said a customer had to be close to their fiber, they didn’t mean that fiber had to be close the home, because distribution fiber passes lots of homes and businesses. They meant that a customer had to live close to a neighborhood node which are the only access points on a cable distribution network. Cable nodes are often placed where they aren’t an eyesore for homeowners and so I laughed because in most places hardly anybody lives close enough to a Comcast node to buy the touted 2 Gig service. In a city of 20,000 like mine I would be surprised if there are more than a dozen or two homes that would qualify to buy the Comcast service.

The same is true for most of the big ISPs. Verizon has built a lot of last mile fiber with FiOS and now CenturyLink is starting to do the same. But some of the other large companies like AT&T are very happy to talk about how close they are with fiber to homes and businesses without mentioning that the vast majority of that fiber is distribution fiber, which is close to worthless for providing fiber to homes and small businesses. This is not to say that companies like Comcast or AT&T don’t have any last mile fiber. They just don’t have very much of it and it’s generally limited to business parks or to greenfield neighborhoods where they’ve installed fiber instead of copper.