It is surprising, but rural broadband services are still lacking after many years and program-dollars spent to address the issue. The reasons are complex, but in general, telecom companies have resisted committing to the infrastructure required by sparsely populated areas, and this isn’t likely to change – which opens up an opportunity for other players, especially power utilities that can piggyback existing and future infrastructure investments to meet this demand.
Broadband connectivity is arguably more essential for rural than urban customers. In rural areas, broadband can dramatically improve the quality of life. When you can’t get to a doctor, a telehealth solution offers an essential video consultation. When you’re snowed in, the school can stream lessons so no child misses out. Small businesses now have online storefronts which dramatically expand their marketplace and opportunities. If you can work remotely using reliable broadband, your employment and business opportunities stretch far beyond your local community. Not to mention the fact that many rural dwellers are unable to access a variety of entertainment options without having to drive.
Digital agriculture practices also rely on high-speed connections. Growers need not only to sense and collect information locally, but to communicate, store, retrieve and analyze the data, much of which is done in the cloud. In order to optimize cultivation cycles, they need timely information, and to leverage data from hundreds of thousands of other farmers to better predict what actions will show the best return.
Power utilities are in a unique position to provide the underlying infrastructure for broadband connectivity. One reason that many rural areas don’t have access to broadband is that for many communications service providers (CSPs), it doesn’t make business sense to invest in the network infrastructure needed to serve remote households. In contrast, power utilities already have much of the infrastructure in place, including rights-of-way. As a result, power utilities can run fiber alongside power cables and add it as part of their routine maintenance.
Gigabit Passive Optical Networking (GPON) technology provides an effective rural broadband solution. It uses optical fiber in an efficient manner to provide a high bandwidth and low latency connection, and it can cover wide areas. There are few active components, so it’s relatively easy to manage and operate. Hundreds of users can be connected from a single access node. Plus, utilities have the systems in place to respond quickly if there is an outage, from the call center to roving maintenance crews.
As utilities upgrade their communications to support distributed energy resources, fiber will be essential in supporting the management and load balancing of the grid. Rural areas are increasingly important in wind and solar generation. Wind farms, for instance, can also use private wireless solutions based on LTE and 5G, which can be expanded to support digital agricultural use cases. These wireless technologies still require fiber at some point in the network, and the more bandwidth needed, the further out the fiber needs to stretch.
In some cases, the power utility might want to deliver a quad play service to customers (internet, video, voice and electricity), building on their existing customer relationship. Alternatively, they could deliver fiber to the local community and partner with CSPs that bring the connection to the customer, typically wirelessly. The power utility could act as a neutral host, partnering with several service providers, so that the community has a choice of suppliers and wider range of services. Power regulators will be pleased to see consumer electric rates offset by fiber rental fees paid by service providers.
Governments have recognized the importance of broadband to rural areas, so in some cases grants may be available to support the investment. In the U.S., for example, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is overseeing $4 billion of investment in broadband initiatives. USDA is also an avid supporter of rural broadband development.
Between digital agriculture, remote teleworking, teleeducation and telemedicine – and the expansion of distributed renewable energy resources – rural areas are finally joining the digital era. Optical broadband, private wireless LTE and 5G services will have a big role to play in this transformation as well, and it is a market opportunity that power utilities are uniquely positioned to address.
This article was written by Liana Ault, Energy Innovation Lead at Nokia. Liana has over 20 years experience in networking and telecommunications. She has served on the board of directors for UTC and for other local government boards in rural communities. She has worked in education, local government and for a service provider. Liana was raised on a farm in Illinois and has a passion for rural broadband and the economic development and support of small communities.