I work with rural communities all over the country and one of the first thing I am usually asked is to help them figure out how much fiber is already in their community. There seems to be a natural assumption that all fiber is the same and that existing fiber can somehow be used to get better broadband in their area. I always hate to have to tell them that existing fiber is rarely of any benefit to them.
I also have to tell them is that it’s usually exceedingly difficult to find the location of existing fibers. Incumbent telcos, cable companies and electric companies rarely will provide that kind of detail to anybody. This is partly due to security issues, and anything told to a government entity ends up in the public domain.
But even if these companies were willing to provide details of all of their existing fiber, the chances are pretty high that the existing fiber cannot benefit communities in the ways the communities hope. There are a number of reasons for this:
- The primary reason for existing fiber lacking benefit for communities is that most existing fiber is part of a private network. This private network could be connecting two telco central offices. It could be connecting a cable TV headend with a neighborhood node. It could be a school network connecting schools. It might be used by the electric company to connect to neighborhood substations. It could be used by a railroad along its tracks. Or it might be used by the highway department to control hazard signs or sensors. And today we are finally seeing a lot of private fiber routes being built to reach cellular towers.
- Most fiber in private networks was built for a very specific function, like those listed above. The builders of the fiber designed and built the fiber for that purpose and are generally not very willing to use the fiber for any other purpose. Sharing fiber adds significant risk for a fiber owner. Sharing a fiber brings responsibilities that few of the private network owners are willing to tackle. They are generally content to use the fiber for their own purposes without having to worry about how their use of the fiber might affect somebody else.
- Private network owners are also extremely protective about who can have physical access to their fiber. I can’t think of a private network owner that will allow outside technicians to have direct access to their fibers. And this means that if they allow somebody to share their fiber they also have to take on all of the work to connect and maintain those connections. Companies that own rural fiber networks often have labor forces that are already stretched thin and they don’t want to take on this extra burden.
- There is another access issue that might be the most important reason to not share a fiber route. It’s likely that the party that wants to share an existing fiber wants to get onto and off of the fiber at different locations than the fiber owner. It’s not cheap or easy to gain access to existing fibers if it wasn’t designed with the needed access points. It is not unusual for a private fiber to be designed with no access points between the two ends of the fiber. It’s fairly easy and economical to add access points during the initial construction process. Handholes or other access points can be added to the fiber to provide future easy connectivity to the fiber. But adding access points to an existing fiber, particularly a buried fiber, can be costly and even risky since you have to dig to gain access to the already-buried fiber. Adding new connections also might mean adding pedestals or even something larger if power is needed at the new fiber junction.
- Often the fibers that pass through rural areas are long-haul fibers. These fibers are part of some larger network that connect large geographic areas or creates fiber rings. Long-haul fiber owners rarely will allow local connections to a fiber, because once a fiber is used for a local connection, that fiber can no longer be used to create a path around the larger fiber ring.
- The reason that communities find the most frustrating is when they find they are not allowed to use government-built fibers. I’ve often come across school or state government networks that were built with funding that prohibits sharing. I know of a number of state and county government networks that are not allowed to be shared for any commercial purpose – usually a requirement that was imposed by the funding that built the network. These kind of prohibitions often stem from laws in states that don’t want government networks competing with commercial networks. These networks often have large numbers of usable pairs that sit idle and that can’t be used by anybody but the government entity that built the fiber.
My message about the lack of benefits for existing local fiber is often met with incredulity. I have been hired a number of times just to prove that the fibers are not available. It generally only takes a few calls to the typical fiber owners to find that they have no desire to share fiber. But there are exceptions. For example, the large telcos will offer to share fiber if they have the capacity – but this is generally expensive and is part of a pricing scheme the telcos refer to as special access. And once communities understand the cost of special access they are rarely interested in that fiber.
I certainly understand the frustration that comes from finding out that a community might be fairly fiber rich, but that none of that fiber can be used to bring broadband to homes. It seems to fly against logic, but it is usually the market reality.