The FCC's Rural Broadband Experiments program showed one thing very clearly: there is a lot of interest out there in building rural broadband networks. In all, 181 entities submitted bids for nearly 600 projects in 50 states and Puerto Rico.
For every one of those 600 projects, our experience tells us there will be a manager with approval authority who is answerable for the results of the investment. An example would be a city manager, who might oversee this type of project.
Funding for Rural Internet
The first hurdle a city manager comes across in their attempt to set up a rural broadband network is financing. Even if they get funds from the FCC or another government agency, like the USDA, they'll find that the funds go toward building the network, but aren't enough to maintain it.
Rather than expect subscriber revenues to pay for operating costs, municipalities can do what our client Seneca Nation of Indians does. They treat Internet service in their rural communities as a public utility and provide residents with basic Internet at no charge with an option for more bandwidth with a paid subscription. The soundness of this approach was recognized this week by the FCC, whose net neutrality ruling reclassified Internet service providers as public utilities.
The amount of funds required depends to a large extent on how much of the network is wired vs. wireless. Although some portions of a network may be wired, the lower the population density of the area to be covered, the more expensive it generally becomes to provide Internet through fiber or cable. Thus, rural networks are likely to be wireless.
Challenges of Building Rural Broadband Networks
After funding, the biggest issue most rural city managers face is the challenge of building a wireless network in a remote and often hard-to-access area. Several interrelated factors affect the design and construction of a broadband network. For example, a region's topography and thickness of vegetation affect decisions about height of towers and frequency of the signal. Not to mention the need to ensure a proper line of sight between those towers. All of which has a bearing on signal strength and throughput speed, which have to be considered in determining how far apart the towers will be placed.
The network installer's engineers must take all these factors into account when optimizing a network. When we were planning the network for the Seneca Nation, we considered factors like the area's ravines and peaks, forests, existing towers and population density to arrive at the proper tower placement and frequency tuning.
City managers will also encounter issues concerning operations. For example, since the rural Internet will most likely be carried on the unlicensed spectrum, managers should be aware of the pitfalls that go with it. If their signals must traverse extra-long distances, they may have to consider using higher frequency microwaves in the licensed spectrum. In addition, their contract with the installer should specify who will monitor their networks after they become operational.
Guide for Rural City Managers
We've created a guide that gives rural city managers tips on what to look for when they're considering building a broadband network. We recommend reading it along with our case study on our rural broadband project for the Seneca Nation. You can download them both by clicking the links below.