Middle-Mile Networks: The Middleman of Internet Connectivity
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When you turn on the faucet at your home, you probably don’t think about where that water came from or where it goes after it slides down your drain. Unless there is a problem, of course.
Likewise, after you finish a video call or stream a show on Hulu, it’s unlikely you ponder the journey that data has traveled to and from your device. Unless there is a problem.
Public surveys and unprecedented levels of public and private funding for broadband are clear signals that there is a problem—and growing dissatisfaction—with our collective internet infrastructure. For some communities, the issue is access to high-speed internet. For others, overcoming outdated technology to meet increasing bandwidth demand is the objective. And for many more, it is about affordability or service monopolies.
Armed with new funding to address these issues, states and local communities across the country are grappling to identify the best mix of solutions to meet their broadband needs. The most common path has been to provide financial grants to local internet service providers willing to expand their service to the “last mile”.
Less common is the investment in open-access “middle mile” broadband infrastructure, aimed to increase competition among local internet service providers, thereby lowering costs and adding options for citizens. Successful broadband expansion plans can embrace multiple connectivity layers to deliver the most impactful overall results.
What is the Middle Mile?
Let’s start with a simplification of connectivity to the internet. Visualize your internet connection as travelling across three stages of connected infrastructure:
- The global internet network. A connection of massive cables that run under oceans and between countries to stations called “internet backbones” that are commonly located in major cities. These internet backbones ensure high speed access and connectivity to public and private content that is stored and processed in data centers around the globe.
- Middle mile infrastructure. Carries data across the country on high-capacity fiber lines from a global internet station to an ISP, like Comcast or Charter, near you. Sometimes this middle mile will directly connect large anchor tenants like government, utilities, schools and hospitals.
- Last mile infrastructure. Transfers data from the middle mile to community end-users like residences and businesses. This network can travel via cable, fiber, wirelessly or satellite, and is usually built and owned by a local ISP.
Essentially, middle mile infrastructure is the middleman between your ISP and the high-speed world wide web. It is the network of robust, high-speed fiber bringing broadband close enough to your community for an ISP to connect in a way that provides Internet access.
Expanding Access for Providers and Consumers
In many areas, there isn’t a middle mile network located close enough to connect last-mile infrastructure. Or the only nearby middle mile is privately owned by a large ISP who can selectively determine the business criteria to serve the area. Nearly 40 percent of people in the U.S. have only one internet service provider in their area to choose from.
When one major ISP owns the middle mile of an area, they tend to either charge above market rate prices for other ISPs to connect, or they don’t allow them to connect at all. It can be very difficult for other ISPs to connect to a middle mile network if it requires negotiating cost with their direct competitor.
ISPs with control of Internet connectivity can charge high prices for internet access, or neglect communities they deem less profitable, which creates barriers for consumers. Some estimates report internet costs on a monopolized routes tend to be six times higher than on routes with competitive choices.
Development of public, open-access middle mile infrastructure can provide a solution by expanding internet networks closer to unserved and underserved communities while offering equal opportunity for ISPs to link cost effectively to last mile infrastructure. This strategy would connect more Americans to high-speed internet while also driving down prices by increasing competition among local ISPs.
In addition to potentially helping narrow the digital divide, middle mile infrastructure would also provide backup options for networks if one connection pathway fails, and it would help support regional economic development by connecting businesses.
Early Adopters Lead the Way
Several states are realizing the benefits their residents will reap from more competitive, expansive broadband networks. With communities in mind, state governments have begun to prioritize development of open-access middle mile infrastructure in hopes of providing more affordable, reliable high-speed internet access to unserved and underserved communities.
California is leading the way with a planned $3.25-billion middle mile investment, signed into action in July 2021. To complete the project, the California Public Utilities Commission is working with the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) to construct the middle mile network within CalTrans’ right of way, which allows them to build along state highways and roads. This strategy provides affordable land access into rural and remote regions.
Perhaps the most crucial aspect of California’s plan is its consideration of the next step: last mile infrastructure. While developing open-access middle mile infrastructure is key to lowering prices and expanding connectivity, it does nothing for the consumer if there is no feasible last mile option to connect to. To address this, California will create state-funded technical assistance teams to advise communities as they design last mile plans, along with a $750-million program to offer long-term, low-interest financing to build out “fiber-to-the-home” networks.
California is not the only state recognizing the importance of middle mile infrastructure. Northwest Colorado’s Project THOR, owned by local governments and operated by local provider Mammoth Networks, needed a middle mile network to stop the hours-long network outages affecting schools, public safety centers and hospitals. With just $2.6 million, they built a 400-mile network that connects 14 different communities by incorporating existing commercial and public fiber deployments.
In Massachusetts, the MassBroadband 123 middle mile network stretches across the state. When the town of Alford wanted better connectivity, the ability to connect its community to the middle mile network allowed them to save the roughly $1.5-million cost of building a fiber route to the closest internet point-of-presence located 20 miles away.
York County, Pennsylvania, and Brownsville, Texas, are also following suit, having approved $25 million and $19.5 million budgets, respectively, to build out middle mile networks.
How States Can Act
As the movement for middle mile development continues to pick up speed, interested communities may wonder where to get the money and how best to use it. In terms of funding, now is the time for communities to take advantage of federal funds, which currently abound for broadband investments.
For the near-term, many broadband projects have been and will continue to be funded through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which includes significant funding for broadband infrastructure. The state of California, York County and Brownsville TX are all using ARPA funds for their middle mile projects. In fact, as of October 2021, 17 states had allocated a portion of their ARPA money to address the digital divide.
Across the longer term, the Biden Administration’s infrastructure bill, passed in early November, allocates $65 billion to improve high-speed internet access and affordability, $1 billion of which is dedicated to middle mile infrastructure development. $42 billion of the funds will be distributed to states, who will be submitting 5-year action plans that articulate how they would strategically invest their allocation. As the bill is put into action, this funding will enable massive open-access middle mile buildouts across the nation.
As states take advantage of the myriad opportunities for developing middle mile infrastructure, their buildouts must take into account that there is no one-step solution to narrowing the digital divide. Successful broadband expansion plans should embrace diverse connectivity strategies to deliver the most holistic overall program results. As states work to expand middle mile networks, they could consider the following:
- Coordinate with state departments of transportation to strategically leverage the rights-of-way that will accelerate the path to better connect unserved and underserved areas.
- Identify key anchor institutions, such as community colleges or public safety facilities, within the community that will directly connect and benefit from the speed and savings from the network.
- In concert with middle mile infrastructure, develop plans for the facilitation and funding of last-mile services that spur from the middle mile network.
- Build a campaign to promote the importance of a residential broadband connection, while supporting those ISP’s with innovative programs that allow new subscribers to easily take advantage of individual subscriber subsidies.
As society grows increasingly dependent on the internet for day-to-day activities, it is imperative that all people have access to ensure equal opportunity for employment, learning and human connection. By building out middle mile infrastructure, states will have rights to a highly valuable fiber long-term asset that will foster an increase in both ISP market competition and performance, ensuring the consumer stands as the ultimate beneficiary.
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Do you have any contact info for Facebook’s Fiber Project? They laid fiber cables next to our ISP office and we want to connect. I can’t find anything on the web on how to contact them. Thank you.