How Investing in the Middle Mile Enables Broadband for All

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Ron Kormos, Chief Strategy Officer

When the federal government announced plans to allocate $42 billion in funding to enable “broadband for all” by 2030, the historic investment was championed for recognizing that internet access is a fundamental need in today’s economy. The ambitious program has been compared to the Federal Highway Act of 1956 – which is widely credited for connecting Americans to one another and ushering in a new era of economic growth.

The comparison of broadband access to our interstate highway system is one that I often use when explaining how our fiber networks deliver internet access across wide areas and connect people along a digital highway. When we look at broadband infrastructure in relation to our roads and highways, we can see that broadband funding needs to include the opportunity to build out that digital highway via the middle mile. 

Why is the middle mile so important? Let’s stick with the comparison to our roadways, which consist of interstate highways for long-haul, state highways, toll roads, business loops, and roads that get you across town. Interconnected with this are rural areas that need middle-mile infrastructure to provide a pathway from the major interstate-type network to the last mile, which delivers access to residential areas. 

To adequately serve these rural communities, you need to have that connection between those Interstate fiber optic lines down to that last mile. Middle-mile funding is a lifeline to reaching remote rural areas that lack fixed broadband access because it’s simply not profitable for businesses to build out networks when there’s a stretch of 60 to 70 miles and nothing in-between but small farms and little towns.

Look at a town like Dime Box, Texas. It’s an unincorporated community in Lee County with no big cities for miles. Without government funding to supplement middle-mile development, finding a carrier to service that rural community will be challenging. It’s expensive to build fiber networks to places like Dime Box, and while Texas has invested upwards of $500 million to connect small towns across the state, we still have a long way to go.

Only about $1B in the federal broadband budget is currently designated for middle-mile development. It’s estimated that it will take upwards of $5B to build the middle mile in my home state of Texas alone. That amount increases exponentially when we’re talking about building the middle mile across the country. 

It’s important to recognize that the middle mile supports rural areas and delivers critical access to growing communities. Let’s say there’s a new development outside of Austin – complete with schools, golf courses, and hospitals. Using our roadway metaphor, let’s say a two-lane highway is the only way to commute from this community into the central business district. That infrastructure won’t support the traffic between the population in that community and the city. For outlying communities, enabling adequate broadband access must also consider the speed and bandwidth of fiber networks to enable the flow of traffic, facilitate secure connectivity, and promote business growth.

There’s a lot of money at play here, and some of the more prominent industry players are lobbying for more last-mile funding because they have more money invested and more at stake. To enable ‘broadband for all,’ it’s critical to build out that middle mile to get the required capacity to serve the last mile.

Throughout my career, I’ve seen firsthand that when there’s support for middle-mile development, the last-mile carriers will be incentivized to begin providing service. So many small towns and communities will gain coverage simply by funding middle-mile development.

With careful planning and mindful execution, the Federal Highway System has proven to be one of the most significant public works projects of the 20th century. By delivering internet access across the United States and to properly transition into the next era of economic growth, we must focus on the Middle Mile to truly enable “Broadband for All.”