The FAST PIIPS Connectivity Model, Part 4: Fiber and Spectrum Together (FAST) for Rural Access

In my last two posts I discussed how unlicensed TVWS spectrum and education-focused EBS spectrum are underutilized and potentially valuable connectivity resources in many underconnected rural communities. In this post and the next, I hope to flesh out my vision of a rural FAST PIIPS model a bit more, with a focus on the connectivity potential offered by these two spectrum bands when combined with open-access non-profit high-capacity fiber backhaul.

As I did in those two initial posts, I’m going to use Michigan as an example, mainly because it’s the state I’m most familiar with, as both a resident and policy analyst.  As a first step, I’m going to compare the amount of unlicensed TVWS and EBS spectrum in seven small communities in northern Michigan to the average sub-3 GHz spectrum holdings of the nation’s four dominant mobile operators following this year’s 600 MHz auction, according to data compiled by research firm Allnet Insights & Analytics.


As the above graph clearly shows, the combined total of  unused TVWS (the blue <1 GHz bar) and EBS (the green 2-3 GHz bar) spectrum in all seven of these small Michigan communities is far greater than the nationwide average holdings in comparable spectrum bands for each of the four major mobile carriers.  While the latter ranges from 110 to 202 MHz and averages 146 MHz, the potential sub-3 GHz FAST PIIPS spectrum in the seven rural communities ranges from 230 to 329 MHz and averages 289 MHz, nearly twice the average for the four dominant national wireless carriers.

While these spectrum counts do not provide clear apples-to-apples comparisons, they do suggest that TVWS and EBS spectrum have potential to deliver digitally-empowering data rates in sparsely populated rural areas.  I was recently involved in a research project examining pioneering projects exploring this potential, and would strongly encourage further research in this area, as well as additional (and well-documented) deployments that learn from these pioneering projects and leverage the continued evolution of technology and business models related to addressing the rural connectivity challenge.

Fiber backhaul: The “F” in FAST PIIPS that helps ensure it will be “fast”

As noted briefly above and in the two preceding posts, the use of abundant and low-cost yet underutilized spectrum to support last mile access is not the only technology component of the FAST PIIPS connectivity model.  Another core element is the availability of open access, high capacity fiber backhaul.

In many states, an increasing amount of this fiber backhaul capacity has become available this decade as mainly-nonprofit network operators have extended fiber deeper into rural areas with support from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) established by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

In Michigan, the primary recipient of BTOP infrastructure funding was Merit Network, a nonprofit entity that mainly serves the state’s educational community and other community anchor institutions (CAIs), and is owned by Michigan’s major universities.


The red and blue lines in the above map (online version available here) show how Merit’s network expanded more deeply into Michigan’s rural areas during two waves of BTOP-supported network construction in the first half of this decade.

When we examine Merit’s network map in the context of the maps and graph presented earlier in this series of posts, it becomes clear that much of the network’s BTOP-supported expansion occurred in rural areas where the unused stocks of TVWS and EBS spectrum are relatively abundant.  For example, according to the map, Alpena in the northeastern lower peninsula, and Escanaba, in the southcentral upper peninsula, were both added to Merit’s fiber backbone network during this period.  And, as indicated in the spectrum graph, each of these communities have more than 325 MHz of unused TVWS and EBS spectrum available.

As I see it, this combination of: 1) high-capacity open-access nonprofit fiber and; 2) abundant spectrum unburdened by auction costs are the core network elements comprising the FAST (fiber and spectrum together) component of the FAST PIIPS connectivity model.

My next post will consider the PIIPS (public interest IP services) component of this model, with a particular focus on the institutional arrangements and motivations best suited to apply the model in rural areas facing challenging network economics.

Below are links to the other posts in this series. Feedback from readers, especially constructive criticism, is welcome.


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