Connecting rural America

At CORI, we regularly hear from people in areas without broadband, wondering how their town can get connected — and how CORI can help. Data shows these folks are not alone: The FCC estimates that 21.3 million Americans lack access to high-speed broadband (defined as speeds of at least 25 Mbps download, 3 Mbps upload), others peg the number closer to 42 million without broadband. 

COVID-19 has exposed the severe human consequences of this broadband gap. Many seniors in rural areas cannot access telehealth, forcing those most at risk of COVID-19 to choose between risking infection at a hospital or going without care.

Millions of rural students and teachers are forced to do homework or build lesson plans from the parking lots where they can find public WiFi. Workers have lost jobs because they have no way to do remote work. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. At CORI, we’ve worked directly with 11 rural communities that have or are building fiber networks, and our analysis has found over 2,500 rural towns nationwide with access to gigabit-speed fiber. It’s true that there are barriers to good connectivity: Many states prevent municipal broadband builds, and many legacy telecoms’ refusal to expand rural coverage leaves service spotty and prices unnecessarily high.

Still, momentum is building at the federal and state level for universal broadband, and we’ve seen that creative local leaders can put reliable and lightning-fast rural coverage within reach. 

Below we’ve put together a simplified overview of the process of how towns, working with expert consultants, can get started building a broadband network.

Step 1: Align on what you want and why you want it

The first step is figuring out what kind of network best accomplishes your community’s goals. For new projects, the vast majority of cases involve expanding the footprint of an existing cable provider, building a fiber-to-the-premise network, or building a hybrid fiber/fixed wireless network.

At CORI, we believe fiber is the best option, and if possible, you should pursue it. Fiber produces the fastest speeds, and is the most future-proof technology, able to scale up from 1GB to 10GB or even 100GB by replacing the electronics on the fiber strands. 

Your community will also need to agree on the scope of the network; a buildout for fiber to every premise might look different from a buildout for a fiber-enabled business district.

The same goes for deciding on the geography. Some networks serve just one town, while others serve a county or much larger region. The only way to move forward is knowing what you want to build, and where you want to build it. 

Step 2: Create a high-level engineering plan to estimate costs of construction 

Building a new broadband network takes time and money. Determining the cost starts by working with consultants to collect a variety of data from state, local, and national sources.

Together you will need to dig into the current state of connectivity in your town, including information on currently served and unserved areas, underground conduit, state and local regulations, rights of way and easements, the location and condition of utility poles, and more. Manual data collection and surveys are also important to gauge how people in the geographic region are currently using the internet and where there are gaps and shortcomings in the current infrastructure.

Step 3: Find and create the right partnerships to create and govern the network

Creating a new broadband network requires collaboration. Fortunately, there are many ways that a fiber network can be run.

Some towns, such as Wilson, NC, operate municipality-owned networks. In Vermont, a recently passed law allows towns to join together in Communications Union Districts that operate the network. Other areas found the fastest and least-costly route to be encouraging a local, independent company with expertise in providing a utility or telecom to also operate the new fiber network as well.

There is no one-size-fits-all model and we encourage your community to evaluate the pros and cons of each to determine what is right for your region. 

Step 4: Create a business plan

Now that you understand the capital expenditure needed to build the network and you have an operator picked out, you can build a full business plan that takes into account the costs to build the network and the revenue and profit required by the operator. You’ll fully understand how much subsidy you’ll need, the subscription rates you should charge (for internet and likely phone or other bundled services), the exact staffing and equipment required, and more. 

Step 5: Create a funding and grant strategy to implement your business and engineering plans

Now that you’ve clarified goals, know construction costs, and assembled the right partners, you should have a solid plan and understanding of the feasibility of your project. What’s left is finding the funding to execute on it. For rural communities, USDA ReConnect and the FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund are two active potential funding sources.

The CARES Act stimulus package, as well as future stimulus opportunities, also provide new ways to creatively invest in broadband infrastructure. Depending on the laws in your state, you may also be able to raise funds for the build through a municipal bond offering. Private investment or even crowd-funding is another possible option.  

Step 6: Build the network 

Once you’ve secured your funding, the last step is actually building the network. Depending on the operator of the network and their experience, the next step is selecting vendors to manage the project and the construction.

This includes everything from preparing the utility poles (“make-ready” work), to stringing the fiber (or cable), and connecting customers. Soon the build will start, and when everything is in place, you’ll have an operational broadband network bringing connectivity to your region.  

Now more than ever, we can all see how critical broadband is to 21st century economies and 21st century life. We hope this simplified overview of the process has been useful in showing what it takes to build a broadband network. If you have more questions about the process, or would like to explore how CORI can work with you to develop plans for a new fiber network, let us know.