Unraveling Middle-Mile Connection Opportunities, Challenges

There's a growing need to provide middle connectivity opportunities in rural areas, but success depends on a well thought out plan to navigate a labyrinth of permitting and construction challenges. 

  • middle mile

As service providers begin rolling out broadband to communities, particularly in smaller markets, there is a need to put in place robust middle-mile connectivity.

The middle mile is the segment of a network that links a service provider’s core network to the local network plant, typically situated in a central office that provides access to the local loop. This includes the backhaul network to the nearest aggregation point and any other parts of the network needed to connect the aggregation point to the nearest point of presence on the operator’s core network. The middle mile also provides connectivity to major internet hubs.

The interconnection between middle-mile and last-mile networks has become increasingly important in recent years, as last-mile networks expand into rural areas of the United States. Middle-mile connectivity has become increasingly important in rural markets that lack options to access internet hubs. 

Service providers partner with a growing number of alternative players, including Zayo and Fatbeam, to get middle-mile networks. These providers come at the middle-mile concept from different angles. ThinkBig Networks, an emerging FTTH provider, works with middle-mile providers to get access to internet hubs.

Zayo, a Tier-1 provider, can offer fiber-based services in major markets in North America and Western Europe. It currently has more than 13 million miles of fiber across the United States, Canada and Europe.

When it works to connect with local last-mile providers, Zayo likes to interconnect with other last-mile players at its point of presence or other major interconnection points.

“You have to protect from slicing and dicing the network such that it becomes delicate because it has so many splice points should someone look for a ring around the network,” said Dennis Kyle, senior vice president of Zayo. “We try to direct people toward aggregation points in the network as a way of consolidating services, aggregating services and improving the reliability of the network.”

He added, “The more splice cases you touch, the more unknown line errors, so you try to avoid making your network delicate.”

Fatbeam, a business-to-business provider of fiber-based network solutions to enterprise, health care, government and education customers in the Western United States, faces similar challenges. Focusing on communities with populations under 200,000, Fatbeam goes where there’s an existing ILEC. It initially provides WAN connectivity to schools and installs high fiber counts.

“We build fiber through the community,” said Greg Green, CEO of Fatbeam. “We’ll start with a core fiber network, run through downtown, and ultimately look to connect with others.”

Rural Opportunities, Challenges

As service providers roll out middle-mile networks in rural areas, network operators need to be aware of various scenarios that could hold up a build or get in the way of completing a project.

For Fatbeam, the move into a rural market means that it has an opportunity to differentiate itself from other providers.

“When you’re in a rural market, you basically have the incumbent phone company and the incumbent cable company,” Green said. “In rural markets, you get to dictate how you want your fiber to connect into a co-location facility.”

But Green emphasizes that Fatbeam likes to build out diverse routes separate from other providers. “If we’re not the first one in a location, we’re going to create diversity there,” he said. “Like an artist, a new provider has its own brush to create its own strokes. It is able to think about how it is going to interconnect and interface.”

ThinkBig Networks, an emerging FTTH provider that offers service in Maryland and Virginia, agreed and added that developing new ways to get into a community is key. The service provider today provides service to Kent County, Maryland, with plans to bring it to other Maryland towns, including Sudlersville, Church Hill, Centreville, Ocean Pines and Ocean City. It also plans to expand to Captain’s Cove, a community in Greenbackville, Virginia.

ThinkBig is completing several grant projects to bring services to towns with little or no internet.

Mark Wagner, CEO of ThinkBig, said that a new player must start a dialogue with local incumbent telcos.

“When you’re thinking rural, there’s going to be less competition,” he said. “You do have the ability to be more creative with the local telephone co-ops
and power companies to get them excited about your business plan and how to work together.”

He added that rural markets are unlike urban markets in which new providers have a wider range of providers to work with for interconnection.

Zayo, which serves a mix of denser urban and rural markets, attributes to thoughtful preparation its success mapping out and working with the communities it serves.

“Rural areas take longer,” Kyle said. “When you enter a rural market, you need to help people plan and educate them.”

Understanding Deployment Obstacles

In addition to dealing with a smaller number of providers, the other challenge middle-mile providers encounter when going into new markets is dealing with unforeseen deployment obstacles.

For a fiber provider, getting permission from landowners and state agencies to lay fiber across railroads and bridges can hold up a fiber build.

Fatbeam saw these issues firsthand when it started laying fiber under a bridge in Yakima, Washington. It took 12 to 14 months to attach fiber conduit.

“Here we are bringing broadband to a rural community by going under the bridge that is on a separate path from the other nine carriers that are connected to a nearby PoP on a railroad,” Green said. “This route is going to help this community, yet no one sees that, so there can be an education process.”

But according to Zayo, if a network is already in a market, it can perform an interconnection to a building quickly.

“Assuming our network is there and our equipment is there, and the partner’s network is there, it can take 30 days or less,” Kyle said.

Nevertheless, there are always other issues, such as getting access to utility poles and the associated make-ready process and railroad crossings.

“You might think you have plenty of room in a location, but a lot of little nuances could come up,” Green said.

Wagner agreed that every deployment and interconnect ThinkBig does is unique and is never easy.

“Every single interconnect I have ever been associated with during my entire 19-year career has always been in cases where there’s a different floor or a different location,” he said. “I have never seen a deployment where the partner says ‘we have a 2-foot cross-connect.’”

(This article was part of Broadband Communities coverage of the fall 2020 virtual summit. Click on this link to see all of the event coverage.)



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