Funding Middle-mile Fiber

A decade ago, there were a lot of federal grants given to build middle mile fiber. That’s the fiber that connects communities and that provides a path between a community and a connection to the Internet. Ideally, backbone fiber also provides a diverse route with ring electronics so that if one of the fibers serving a community is cut the broadband connection to the community keeps working.

It’s not as easy to find grants for backbone fiber today. For instance, the $16.4 RDOF grant for later this year is aimed at bringing last-mile fiber to remote places in the country but doesn’t let an applicant file for money to build just backbone fiber to reach those same remote communities. It’s almost as if the FCC somehow thinks that most of America is somehow now in reach of a reliable connection to the Internet.

A new network called Project THOR recently launched in northwest Colorado that is purely a backbone project and that shows the continued need for middle-mile fiber. Project  THOR is a consortium of 14 communities that came together because they regularly suffered major broadband outages any time there was a middle-mile fiber cut in the region or an electronics problem at CenturyLink, the backbone provider for the entire section of the state. Network outages can be devastating and mean non-functional 911 centers, hospitals with no broadband, city governments that are crippled, and business districts that can no longer take credit cards or use the Internet.

The cities and towns in the region selected Mammoth Networks to create and operate a new middle-mile fiber network. The initial network is cobbled mostly with dark fiber leased from Colorado DOT, other networks like Strata, and lit fiber from CenturyLink, Comcast, and Zayo. The plan is to eventually replace lit fiber with dark fiber or constructed fiber. Mammoth oversaw the construction of lateral fibers inside of communities and also designed and implemented the electronics network. The State of Colorado Department of Local Affairs funded the lateral construction and half of the equipment purchases through a broadband grant.

The communities are free to use the network in any way they see fit. The Project THOR network terminates at a meet-me center created in each community. Several of the communities on the new network have already built fiber-to-the-home and the new network provides Internet redundancy. Other communities located the meet-me room at a hospital or other critical facility so that they’d see an immediate benefit from the network.

Project THOR brings two advantages to the region. First, the network is designed to carry up to 400 Gbps – much more capacity than any existing fiber in the region. Mammoth Networks was also able to string together routes that provide diversity for each city to protect against fiber cuts. A single fiber cut on the Project THOR routes won’t interrupt service to any of the member communities.

There was no better evidence of the effectiveness of Project THOR than when a CenturyLink fiber outage hit the region a few days after Project THOR was activated. On April 10, there was a 6.5-hour outage, and because of Project THOR, the 911 PSAP in Aspen, hospitals in Granby and Kremmling, and the city governments in Aspen and Glenwood Springs stayed operational – but would have lost broadband service without Project THOR. The Project THOR route was the only network to stay functional in the region during the outage.

It’s common knowledge that the large incumbent telcos haven’t put any money into last-mile broadband in rural areas – but the same thing is true for middle-mile fiber. What’s most amazing about Project THOR is that CenturyLink could easily be providing much of the same redundancy and quality of service that the new network offers. However, the company doesn’t seem interested in making the needed investments in diverse fiber routes or the associated electronics.

There are huge areas of the country that suffer from inadequate middle-mile fiber routes. It would be great if there was a grant program aimed specifically for middle-mile fiber. The need is there because existing middle-mile fibers are often not adequate for today’s bandwidth needs and are definitely not ready for the increased bandwidth needs of the future. Most incumbent middle mile has little redundancy, leading to regular Internet outages. It’s also not unusual to find relatively ancient electronics on middle-mile routes in rural areas.

Project THOR is an example of cities that banded together to fix a common issue – in this case, regular and extended Internet outages. In the ideal world, the incumbents would fix such issues because it’s the right thing to do. However, the lack of capital spending on rural broadband affects middle-mile fiber as much as if impacts last-mile fiber – both are inadequate in most rural areas.