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Fiber for Breakfast Week 37: Broadband in the Heartland

As broadband has become a necessity in our day-to-day lives, there’s a reinvigorated focus on rural communities. Millions of people within the U.S.—a majority of whom live in rural areas—do not have access to quality internet service. However, small local companies including utilities and telecoms are stepping up to provide high-speed broadband services.

At a recent Fiber for Breakfast live video series, John Greene, CEO of New Lisbon Telephone Company (NTLC), spoke about what fiber in the rural Heartland looks like, and why fiber is becoming essential in delivering service. While many rural areas have increasingly relied on fixed wireless solutions—including NLTC—the topology and geographic characteristics of Midwestern and Heartland cities make them better candidates for fiber networks.

“In a lab or in a pristine environment, it’s absolutely possible and has been proven that you can provide gigabit service over fixed wireless,” Greene said. “The issue has to do with range and line of sight. If you’re in the desert or you have large open expanses, you have line-of-sight and can see your customers and their houses, you won’t have to worry. It’s when you move further east of the Mississippi where you have a large preponderance of trees—that’s when it’s going to be very challenging.”

Established in 1901 as a rural telephone provider, NLTC provides voice, video, fixed Ethernet and broadband internet. Currently they serve more than 3,000 customers over five counties in Indiana, and recently acquired a small phone company in Pennsylvania. For the past several years, NLTC rehabbed it’s old copper DSL network with fiber.

Right now, NLTC has converted nearly 95% of its network. While two thirds of its customers are on fixed wireless connections today —Greene said the shift to fiber, and specifically fiber-to-the-home, is the way of the future. Fixed wireless models have high maintenance costs and often require a lot of small cells. While that may work in some urban areas, in rural communities where homes are spread far apart, small cells aren’t ideal.

While fiber networks can be expensive to initially install, they often offer better overall service and longevity.

“We’ve literally got customers that we hooked up with fiber six years ago that we’ve never heard from—everything works and it works perfectly,” he said. “You’re not constantly visiting your customer’s house because they’re having a problem.”

These networks are also futureproof. Greene said rural communities investing in fixed wireless now might not have the technology to increase capacity. Recently, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction announced its major winners, including fixed wireless companies building out gigabit networks. Greene said in the near future, though, we’ll be looking at networks that can handle upwards of 10 gigabits—something current wireless technology can’t handle.

“At the end of the day, that’s what we need to be thinking about,” he said. “What are consumers going to get out of this? How are we going to make high frequency gigabit wireless networks work in these areas?”

While he recognizes hybrid models are successful now—which his company is proving—in order to ensure strong connectivity and reliability, there need to be more conversations about what that technology looks like. He said rural network providers need to start moving toward fiber-based backbones to ensure that as capacity needs grow, their networks will be able to handle it.

“Are we always going to be playing catch up, or do we need to figure out a way to get in fiber?” he said. “Because in four to five years we’re not going to be dealing with gigabit speeds, we’re going to need to offer 10 gigabits for each customer, and fiber is the way to do that.”

Join us for our next Fiber for Breakfast live video series on Wednesday, Dec. 16 at 10 am ET. The topic: Fiber Data Delivery in the Mid-West.