It’s fair to say that the Internet has become a part of our critical infrastructure, as essential as electric, water, gas, and transportation services. It is irrefutable that communities across the US lacking sufficient Internet access are at a disadvantage and deserve connectivity. After all, without high-speed Internet, next-generation farming and sustainable agriculture practices, e-commerce, e-learning, telehealth, IoT, and other imperatives to 21st Century living, become difficult, if not impossible.
The need for scalable, stable, and reliable, Internet access became essential in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which unleashed unprecedented demand for Internet capacity by residential, enterprise, and wholesale, communications providers. These businesses are also considering moving to the cloud or are already deploying cloud services, both public and private, with hybrid and multi-cloud models. All this is dependent on high-speed, reliable fiber broadband to function effectively and with the capacity to allow virtually limitless growth.
To meet these customer needs, networks must manage and route data flows at the lowest possible latency to allow customers access without interruption or slowdowns. Most providers have seen dramatic increases in existing and new customers seeking — indeed demanding — additional voice and data services that utilize extraordinary bandwidth as never before. Clearly, these increased demands are only just beginning.
To assist carriers that serve all sizes of consumer and enterprise customers, and to meet future demands particularly among rural customers, it’s useful to review various components of the Internet ecosystem that intersect and evolve to bring more reliable connectivity to rural communities.
The Future of Farming
Farms and ranches across the US are prime examples of the increasing need for reliable, high-speed Internet service for economic development, job growth, and quality of life in rural America. Rural service providers are keenly tuned into the importance of broadband connectivity to the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers. Precision agriculture technology requires hardware, software, and connectivity, for data collection and analysis to optimize field-level management by the nation’s farmers and ranchers.
Real-time questions of today’s farmers include:
- Which fertilizer is best for current soil conditions?
- Where should limited water resources be used?
- Instead of spraying an entire field, which areas require a pesticide application and which do not?
Indeed, farmers must have data-derived answers to maximize yields, to operate efficiently, and to be competitive. Using GPS, GIS, and remote sensing, today’s smart farms need detailed and accurate data such as soil conditions, temperature, and wind speed, data which is collected and sent to cloud-based systems for analysis and timely decisions. In addition, farms and ranches need real-time access to commodity markets and customers, vendors, and suppliers. This cutting-edge technology relies on broadband connectivity.
Planning and constructing high-speed Internet connections to as many customers as possible is essential. But assuring that all customers’ connections are reliable everywhere and at all times is equally essential.
When working with businesses in rural areas, it is indisputable that fiber-optic-based Internet service provides the fastest, most-reliable and highest-capacity services. And in addition to networks, every business — big or small, rural or urban — should have a continuity and disaster recovery plan for its communications infrastructure.
The terms redundancy and diversity are well-known in telecommunications, but they are pillars for ensuring that a business stays connected. The following are among the vital factors that businesses should consider in their network reliability decision-making.
- Equipment Redundancy: Router, Switch, optical and other equipment that reduces the possibility of a service outage due to a single point of failure.
- Fiber: Redundant fiber paths from the network to the customer location and back to the core network.
- Diversity: Diverse routes going to a single site or piece of equipment or to 2 separate pieces of equipment (no single point of failure).
- Network Monitoring: 24/7/365 network operations center with proactive network monitoring.
Such network reliability is increasingly sought after by customers large and small, whether they maintain a single location in a rural area or conduct operations globally. For example, we provide dual routes of dark fiber from our corporate headquarters located in Omaha to a data center for a Nebraska manufacturer and service provider in agriculture and other industries. As a result, that company can scale its network whenever it needs to and increase capacity without incurring unnecessary additional bandwidth costs. It’s a win-win for this customer, its shareholders, and, of course, Nebraska’s rural economy.
Rural Broadband Funding Needs
While the nation’s current minimum standard for defining high-speed Internet is 25 megabits per second downstream and 3 megabits per second upstream, it is widely acknowledged by policy makers and the marketplace that higher-performing networks are necessary. As consumer and business demands are continually expanding, it is inevitable that availability of Internet services at higher speeds and lower latencies will be required by all customers, regardless of where they work and reside — but especially those in rural areas.
Headquartered in Nebraska and with an expanding Midwestern network and customer footprint across the country, Great Plains Communications is committed to continuing its progress in widespread fiber-based broadband deployment in rural areas of Nebraska and Indiana. As with many providers, given the extreme costs required to achieve the goal of bringing broadband to rural areas, numerous federal and state programs are valuable in assisting in rural deployment efforts.
The programs include:
- The 2020 CARES Act rural broadband funding administered by the State of Nebraska Department of Economic Development, by which fiber-based broadband infrastructure is being deployed to 7 of our company’s rural communities reaching more than 7,000 customers.
- Nebraska Legislative Bill 388, introduced in the current session by Governor Pete Ricketts, which when adopted, will inject $20 million annually toward broadband projects in the state this year and next.
- The Federal Communications Commission’s Alternative Connect America Model program implemented in 2017, and expanded in 2018 and 2019, is the most important regulatory policy decision for achieving broadband deployment for hundreds of rural carriers nationwide. A petition seeking extension of the program’s term to allow companies to reach more consumers sooner and with even higher speeds is currently pending at the FCC.
- A rural broadband grant program that is to be administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Agency, a policy arm of the White House, will provide another $300 million nationally to build broadband to underserved rural communities in 2021 and 2022.
- The Next Level Connections (NLC) Broadband Grant Program is designed to promulgate access to reliable and affordable broadband service to all areas of the state of Indiana which is necessary for a highly functioning 21st century economy. This is a part of Indiana Governor Holcomb’s broader Next Level Connections infrastructure program. (www.in.gov/gov/next-level-agenda/next-level-connections)
- And finally, support from the long-standing Nebraska Universal Service Fund, approved more than 2 decades ago by the Nebraska legislature and implemented by the Nebraska Public Service Commission, provides targeted support to the state’s highest-cost areas, and demands accountability by recipient carriers for deployment and maintenance of broadband infrastructure.
In a coordinated manner, these forward-thinking policies implemented by our federal and state officials are making the promise of high-speed broadband for all rural customers — once thought to be an impossibility — much closer to becoming a reality. We are proud to be a partner and steward of programs such as these.