Higher-education regional networks help address the rural middle mile challenge
It might be difficult for some well-connected consumers to understand, but millions of Americans in rural, tribal, and remote areas may not have access to fast internet speeds. Population densities can be so low that it can be hard to make a business case for commercial carriers to bring expensive, high-speed networks into those communities, and ultimately to homes, without additional government funding.
Fortunately, there’s now more money available to help shrink the digital divide and bring high-speed broadband to more Americans. To support improved access for students and educational institutions, Lumen is partnering with higher-education regional networking organizations to bring fiber networks to the top research colleges and universities in the nation – many of which are located well outside metropolitan areas.
The mile before the “last mile”
The broadband industry has been talking about the “last mile” for many years. That’s the portion of the network that directly connects to a consumer’s home or a business. In metropolitan areas, the market is often dense enough to support commercial carriers making the investments to provide those connections. Internet service providers of many kinds – telecom companies, cable companies, independent regional operators and more – likely already provide those last-mile broadband connections in denser locations.
However, in many rural or remote areas, people not only lack last mile connectivity, but also often lack what’s called the “middle mile.” Middle-mile infrastructure is the portion of the network that acts as a backbone link to the global internet used by local last-mile networks. Without the middle mile infrastructure, solving the last mile connection is merely a theoretical discussion. Yet the cost of connecting these communities with both middle mile and last mile infrastructure is often too large a barrier.
Recognizing these challenges, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 contains $65 billion targeted at broadband improvement projects. Several federal grant programs were recently launched under the Internet for All initiative. More than $1 billion of that funding is focused directly on middle-mile solutions. Communities, states, tribal governments, higher education networks, non-profits and other organizations, as well as internet service providers, can use that money to bring middle-mile infrastructure into their regions. With that middle-mile backbone in place, the scale of the problem is significantly reduced.
Lumen is in the process of evaluating our participation in the National Telecommunications and Infrastructure Administration’s (NTIA) Middle Mile Grant program. Our participation is expected to enhance Lumen’s last-mile connectivity, capacity and resiliency in many communities, and enable higher education customers to extend their research and education networks.
Lumen is excited about the Middle Mile Grant program because we are one of the largest providers of fiber networks in the world with more than 500,000 route miles. Through our commitment to higher education, Lumen has partnered with regional education networks to provide fiber for high-speed connections to institutions across the country. Our fiber supports approximately 70 percent of these networks nationwide.
I recently participated in a webinar with Jen Leasure, president of The Quilt, an organization that coordinates these regional education networks. She believes higher education institutions can play an important role in this broadband buildout.
“States should include educational stakeholders and interests in the formulation of local broadband plans, allowing digital equity funds to support the build out of the middle mile,” Leasure said. “Many community colleges, minority serving institutions, colleges and universities still lack the type of high-quality connectivity that would allow them to participate at the forefront of STEM research and educational opportunities.”
Lumen has fiber – including “dark fiber” which is not currently utilized – on routes that are close to many underserved communities or tribal areas. These routes can be extended to create the middle mile linkage these communities may need.
Get the details
With broadband access, comes opportunities. Adults can live anywhere and work everywhere. Students have access to the entire world in ways that were not previously possible. All of this is in addition to virtual healthcare appointments and entertainment options from streaming and gaming services.
However, there are rules and procedures that govern access to this federal money. The webinar I mentioned included The Quilt and NTIA. These leaders offered details and their perspective about broadband funding resources and the middle-mile challenge.
You can find the webinar here And let’s talk about your ideas and any opportunities you want to create. Contact me or your local Lumen rep today.
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