Rural areas are known – and valued – for their slower pace of life. Yet those who live in low-density population areas have no less need than their urban and suburban counterparts for high-speed data and internet.
Rural broadband has become a political imperative, with public funds supporting expansion. Among other service providers, cable operators are uniquely positioned to converge the cable access network and enable delivery of broadband over fiber, coaxial cable, and wireless spectrum. Let’s examine the current market context, the possibilities in this emerging rural market and the technology that provides a sustainable foundation for network evolution.
Current Market Scope for Expansion
Rural broadband is defined in several ways. In the U.S., census blocks that lie outside of urban clusters of persons or housing units are considered rural, and since 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has specified 25/3 Mbps (up/downstream) as the minimum speeds for broadband.
To be “served,” a home or business must be physically passed by coaxial or fiber optic cable, connected to broadband-enabled landlines, or lie within sight of broadband wireless transmitters.
Market expansion has been a matter of pushing broadband infrastructure closer to rural end users. Such efforts, supported by government policy, have been fruitful. Only 12 percent of European Union (EU) rural areas had access to 30 Mbps speeds in 2012, but nearly a decade later that number had increased to 60 percent.
According to the FCC, rural Americans with access to fixed broadband increased from 68 percent to 83 percent over the 2016-2019 period, and those with access to mobile broadband with a median speed of 10/3 Mbps increased from 65 percent to 90 percent.
Estimates of absolute numbers vary. The FCC reported that less than 14.5 million Americans were unserved at the end of 2019. Some industry organizations have similar or lower estimates, but other groups think these are undercounts.
One independent research firm has said that the number is more than 42 million. The takeaway? The market in the U.S. alone could expand by millions, possibly even by several tens of millions.
Broadband’s Value in Rural Areas
The internet has long since become omnipresent. However, over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has confirmed that high-speed broadband is simply an everyday necessity.
Bandwidth-intensive, two-way platforms for education and healthcare services have undergone exponential growth. Employees in many sectors of the economy now work-from-home most of the time, supported by broadband-enabled teleconferencing. Our new normal is here to stay and will also continue to evolve towards even more internet usage.
These trends have impacted rural areas in different ways. Sheer distances were a pre-existing justification for telehealth in some rural settings. Today’s wide acceptance of remotely delivered healthcare is driving acceleration and adoption.
Work-from-home may be less of a natural fit in rural settings, compared to suburban and urban areas. Access to broadband service, however, has impacted operations in nearly every economic sector, including the classic rural industry, agriculture.
The decline of some rural-based industries, such as fossil-fuel extraction, presents a strong case for broadband-based retraining. As for education at all levels, the pandemic’s disproportionate effect on students in rural school districts with broadband deficits is yet another call to action.
In general terms, broadband serves as an economic catalyst. Research conducted by the European Commission and others has indicated a correlation between broadband penetration and annual growth in per-capita GDP.
This logically applies to sub-national regions. While not a solution for all our world issues, broadband does support several prerequisites of economic strength. Two of the main pillars being healthcare and education.
Rural officials looking to convince companies or individuals to relocate within their jurisdictions have little chance without widespread availability of reliable, high-speed data services.
The Challenge of Rural Broadband Internet Access and Service Quality
Providing broadband service can be capital-intensive. Investment and total cost of ownership present high hurdles.
The most successful of the early internet service providers (ISPs) turned out to be telecom and cable operators who leveraged their investments in existing infrastructure. To deliver broadband, they added costly network equipment: digital subscriber line access multiplexers (DSLAMs) in the telco central office (CO) and cable modem termination systems (CMTSs) in the cable headend. In both cases, service tilted toward higher density markets.
Distance limitations of DSL tethered service to the CO. These and other constraints led operators with sufficient resources to deploy fiber-to-the-home (FTTH). To obtain the best possible return on these expensive builds, however, they again took care to launch in well-populated markets.
More recently, and often with external, government support, rural telephone companies and electrical cooperatives have been replacing legacy networks with fiber. According to a 2021 NCTC member survey, half of this association’s respondents were still using copper to deliver low-grade broadband services, but this was down from 66 percent in 2018.
Among multiple system operators (MSOs), the original launch of DOCSIS reinforced the pre-existing trend toward consolidation in metropolitan markets. To serve less densely populated (if not rural) areas, MSOs have always been able to use more economical, small-market CMTS gear.
On the access plant, network extensions have been another option. Yet the cost of longer runs has traditionally been more amplifiers, greater signal attenuation, and more points of failure, service-impacting challenges which prompted the search for DOCSIS-friendly ways to deploy fiber-to-the-home (FTTH).
Rural customers could also turn to internet satellite. Yet this approach, while ideal for dispersed end users, typically provided data rates slower than cable or fiber broadband and were, until recently, limited by significant network delay.
Wireless internet service providers (WISPs) have been another option, yet they have line-of-sight requirements and entail other limitations, such as those imposed by weather. Mobile broadband, including 5G, has become widely available, but as noted above, it is defined by downstream speeds that are only 40 percent of fixed broadband.
Solutions for High-Speed Broadband Connectivity
Public policy has provided one answer. The growth of broadband in rural Europe over the past decade corresponds with the availability of capital support from several EU funds and facilities; and more than $7 billion in broadband stimulus funds appropriated through the U.S. Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 boosted broadband access among rural Americans over the following years. Additional government funding and advances in technology have combined to make rural broadband even more viable.
Through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) launched in 2020, the U.S. federal government appropriated $20 billion to support the construction of broadband networks in rural communities (or “eligible unserved high-cost census blocks”). Most recently, the Infrastructure Bill of 2021 more than tripled that amount, designating $65 billion in broadband support, to be dispersed over the next five to eight years.
A broad range of service providers are competing for these funds. The top-ten recipients in the initial phase of the RDOF awards reverse auction included three major telecom providers, a consortium of rural electrical membership cooperatives (REMCs), one MSO, four wireless internet service providers (WISPs) and one broadband satellite provider. Those that offer 1 Gbps / 500 Mbps broadband service have a preferred consideration for the available funds.
The solutions represented by these awards, which came under criticism for inadequate technical vetting, include the following:
- Telcos and REMCs – fiber-based passive optical networks (PONs) that deliver what many consider the new gold standard in broadband, 1 Gbps symmetric.
- WISPs – low-cost, rapidly deployed microwave or millimeter wave transmission across authorized bands of wireless spectrum.
- Satellite broadband operators – newly launched low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite systems that promise improvements in latency.
- MSOs – broadband over a platform that offers a uniquely converged range of access options, including DOCSIS, fiber and wireless.
MSOs have derived enhanced flexibility from network virtualization and the industry’s distributed access architecture (DAA). This initiative, executed in Harmonic’s case through its CableOS platform, decentralized and virtualized the CMTS, or Converged Cable Access Platform (CCAP) as it was later called.
The upshot has been functions in remote devices closer to the end user and access-network convergence. “On a single off-the-shelf server, we can run not only our micro application supporting DOCSIS, but also the micro application supporting PON,” said Harmonic VP Access Network Solutions and Strategy Richard Rommes. “And if you're running DOCSIS today, you can deploy PON tomorrow, just as easily, just by simply adding that particular software piece.”
This architecture also enables the integration of DAA components, such as the remote PHY device (RPD), directly into a base station sector antenna, making high-speed data available over last mile wireless transmission. The implementation of this approach involving Harmonic has achieved up to 2 Gbps per single customer.
For all access options, the CableOS® cloud-native platform, with virtualized CMTS, not only reduces the traditional cost structure but also enables innovation “at the speed of software,” which means, among other things, automated upgrade to DOCSIS 4.0 in support of the industry’s 10G vision.
Industry Support to Reach Targets
Comcast Shows Support for PON Technology Advances
A wide range of service providers have embraced CableOS. By the end of 2021, more than 70 operators had deployed CableOS, representing about 60 million locations passed.
Rogers Communications Aims to Bridge the Digital Divide with FTTH
The top priority at Rogers Communications, a Harmonic CableOS customer, is “to deliver cutting-edge technology and reliable broadband experiences to our customers", said Rogers SVP of Development and Core Engineering Luciano Ramos. “We’re proud to be working with Harmonic to bring leading DAA and virtualized solutions to our cable and converged FTTH services.”
PON & FTTH Adoption Continues to Gain Momentum
Smaller operators are also leveraging this technology to reach their objectives. “Broadband usage is surging. To keep the network running smoothly, we need a flexible, scalable, and cost-efficient solution,” said Sheldon Mason, manager, field support at Macson, a TELUS brand that operates local cable companies throughout British Columbia. “Harmonic’s CableOS platform allows us to address the immediate need for capability while at the same time freeing critical infrastructure resources.”
“It is critically important for rural communities to have fast, reliable internet access,” said Josh Smith, director of operations at Otelco, which provides wireline telecom services in seven states. “Since adopting the CableOS Platform, we’ve connected our customers with up to 10 times faster upstream and downstream bandwidth speeds and have also significantly reduced our OpEx by saving space, power and cooling costs.”
The beauty of a CableOS-powered vCMTS is that you can go with fiber or DOCSIS or even wireless. Southern California-based GeoLinks was the telco that requested the integration of Harmonic’s RPD into antennas manufactured by Globtel, creating an MSO-centric solution that can deliver broadband speeds over a microwave link of up to 5 miles. “Operators can rapidly roll out broadband connectivity to underserved areas and achieve fast ROI,” said Pavle Mikuz, VP of Sales at Globtel.
Bringing Broadband Internet to Rural Areas
How more subsidies will impact the business models for rural broadband is an open question. The U.S. RDOF funding was considered a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, yet it was quickly followed by broadband funds in the Infrastructure Bill, 3x larger than RDOF and 9x as large as the 2009 broadband stimulus program.
If you are an MSO, you may have already won an RDOF award, or be planning to seek funding in the future. Or, you could have separate plans on the drawing board to extend service into unserved areas. The pandemic has sparked not only the Great Resignation among workforces, but also accelerated a flight to “exurbia,” perhaps creating opportunities for network expansions or upgrades.
Whether you have already adopted or are considering Harmonic’s CableOS cloud-native core platform, keep in mind one of its inherent and expansive benefits. It provides flexibility to approach the rural market and deliver broadband and next-generation services with the power of fiber, the efficiency of DOCSIS and the deployment speed of fixed wireless.