Broadband and New Factories

There is a lot of talk across the political spectrum about the need to bring manufacturing back to the US. The pandemic has made it clear that the US is far too dependent on other countries that make the things we need to succeed. I found it painful back in March and April watching governors pleading with foreign countries to ship us the basic supplies needed to test for the coronavirus.

Medical supplies are just the tip of the iceberg and as a country, we’ve outsourced goods across the spectrum. It’s disappointing to look at the iconic American companies that no longer make their goods in the US. We’ve outsourced Schwinn bikes, Rawlings baseballs, Levi jeans, Converse All-star sneakers, Fisher-Price toys, Samsonite luggage, Brach’s candy, Fender guitars, Dell computers, Black & Decker and Craftsman tools, Radio-Flyer red wagons, and even America Girl and Barbie dolls.

Over 60,000 US factories have shut since 2001 when China joined the WTO. Manufacturing jobs at the end of WW2 II represented over 60% of all jobs in the US economy, and that has dropped today to under 9%. The reasons we’ve lost American factories are complex. While much of it can be blamed on manufacturers chasing higher margins through lower labor costs, many US factories also grew old and obsolete as owners didn’t put profits back into modernization. The strong US dollar has often contributed to US-made goods being at a disadvantage on world markets.

The current administration has made it a priority to create American manufacturing jobs and has succeeded in adding back about 900,000 manufacturing jobs since the start of 2017. Joe Biden in his recent presidential acceptance speech talked about creating policies that would create 5 million new manufacturing jobs. The pandemic has made it clear to politicians on both sides of the aisle that we need to manufacture critical goods like drugs and electronics in this country again. It’s insane for the country to have to rely on others for basic commodities like medicines.

The question I ask today is if communities in America are ready for new factories? New factories are different than traditional factories. New factories will almost universally include at least some level of automation. New factories will require a fast and secure broadband connection. Factories today are tied into the cloud for much of the software they use. They use the Internet to interface real-time with suppliers and customers. Factories are often connected to other branches of the company that collaborate over broadband in real-time.

Any community that wants to attract new factories must have great business broadband. That means not only fiber to connect to the business parks where factories are located, but it means diverse fiber routing so that a factory doesn’t lose broadband if somebody cuts a fiber inside of a city. It also means having diverse Internet routes leaving a city so that a fiber cut doesn’t isolate broadband. Factories are not going to locations where the Internet connections are not iron-clad.

Many communities I work with are still working to solve the first issue, which is to build the basic fiber infrastructure. We always hear about communities that have made the big plunge to build fiber to everybody in town, but there are far more communities that have quietly found ways to bring fiber to industrial parks and other key employers.

However, building fiber to business parks is only half of the needed solution. It’s just as important to a community that the fiber connection between the community and the Internet is secure. Factories really don’t care if the reason for fiber outages is inside or outside the community – they want to locate in places where broadband connections are virtually guaranteed.

Unfortunately, many communities are served by poor middle-mile networks that make the community susceptible to Internet outages. This blog from May talks about the counties in northwest Colorado that have suffered as a region every time there has been an outage on CenturyLink’s middle-mile fiber. It was fairly common for a fiber outage in the region to knock out broadband to the whole region and the key infrastructure like hospitals, law enforcement, and factories. These communities banded together to construct Project THOR – a fiber network built to guarantees that a fiber cut or an electronics outage doesn’t disrupt broadband.

If we are going to see a resurgence of new factories, then communities need to make an honest assessment of the local and regional broadband capabilities and vulnerabilities. Cities that have sound broadband infrastructure need to be crowing about it, and communities with gaps in Internet capability need to get in gear and find ways to solve broadband problems. If we indeed see a flood of new factories being built, it might be a once-in-a-generation event, and cities don’t want to miss out due to not having decent basic fiber infrastructure.

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.