Strategic Middle Mile Investments Can Minimize Last Mile Islands but Choosing Right Fiber is Key

An AI-gerneated image depicted a rural, small town with fiber cables running underground and a communications tower in the distance.

In 2023, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) awarded a grant to Zayo Group, LLC for $48 million to address a long-standing set of middle mile needs in Oregon as well as parts of California and Nevad.. The grant was part of NTIA’s Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program, a $980 million program which received more than 235 applications totaling more than $5.5 billion in funding requests. At least six proposals were submitted to this program for projects in Oregon, and just one was funded. The need for and the continuing interest in middle mile infrastructure across our state and nation are clear, as evidenced by this program’s oversubscription.

We believe that while last mile builds are necessary, they need to be paired with strategic, data-informed investments in middle mile infrastructure to deliver price competitiveness and resiliency to consumers who aspire to connect to our digital highways. Without such investments to ensure adequate, redundant connections, the current influx of federal infrastructure funding could create “last-mile islands” and risks widening the digital divide in rural communities across our nation, including Oregon.

OVERBUILDING? OR PLANNING FOR RESILIENCE & REDUNDANCY?: Link Oregon’s consistent recommendation has been to rely to the greatest extent possible on fiber optic cable as the most resilient, future-proof medium to reach the consumer—whether that be a residence, business, or community anchor institution.  

Tying together the last-mile connections is the middle mile, the high-speed provider network infrastructure that serves as a network backbone interconnecting with data centers and Internet exchange points to move data efficiently. Middle-mile networks in the U.S. are typically developed using fiber optic cables, giving them cost-effective capacity, resilience, and long-term scalability.

In telecommunications and Internet circles, “Don’t overbuild” has been a prevailing mantra, particularly with regard to middle-mile routes. Overbuilding is not inherently problematic when considering the bigger picture of network design. A critical factor when considering a new fiber build to serve rural communities, for instance, is whether they currently have sufficiently resilient fiber pathways to the Internet core. Most don’t. Communities in Oregon without this level of resilience are at great risk of losing connectivity and usually at the very times they need it most: during a wildfire, flood, or a major landslide, for instance. 

NOT ALL FIBER IS THE SAME: So what is the best way to deploy fiber to mitigate risks? That depends. Decisions around funding and deploying new middle-mile fiber are complex. Selecting the right fiber solution and how to deploy it requires assessing a number of key factors:

  • Physical characteristics include fiber type, age, and estimated capacity (the geology and vegetation of a particular landscape will influence whether buried or aerial fiber deployments are most suitable, for instance).  In addition, some fiber types may not be able to support the high-speed technologies now being deployed (e.g., 400 Gigabits per second wavelengths) or emerging transmission approaches, such as quantum networking.
  • Design considerations are based on physical analysis as well as on an assessment of the network purpose (express vs. local – think interstate freeway vs. local highway), spacing and location of access points, and ensuring path redundancy.
  • Resiliency factors include environmental risks—such as wildfire, earthquake, and inundation due to tsunami or flood—as well as man-made concerns including accidents and vandalism.
  • Business considerations may include such requirements as equipment colocation space under commercially reasonable terms or the availability of unused fiber pairs for future expansion.
  • Policy considerations include government concerns about duplicative building or funding. It includes service provider concerns about competition and what it could mean if business is awarded to smaller competitors in a region.

Link Oregon’s position is that middle-mile infrastructure that is substantially capitalized by public funding should be provisioned to provide sufficient capacity for network growth and expansion over time for all communities. Publicly funded, middle-mile fiber builds should be open-access, that is, available to all qualified providers (whether public and private). 

DATA-INFORMED INVESTMENTS REQUIRE COMPREHENSIVE MAPS: We are also focused on the importance of timely, comprehensive broadband mapping. This is critical to understanding the location and severity of the existing service gaps across communities. Link Oregon supports the development of more comprehensive data sets that include all publicly relevant data. A robust statewide broadband mapping program is necessary to identify the real gaps in connectivity across our state. As an underpinning to all that we do, Link Oregon endorses comprehensive, community-based broadband grant programs that allow Oregon to develop a plan for supporting chronically underserved areas. We are dedicated to achieving these results in the most cost-effective manner to address the current challenges but also to build for future growth, so that all Oregon communities can enjoy sustainable, resilient, and equitable high-speed Internet access.