When you activate the faucet in your home, you probably don’t think about the water source or where it goes after it’s drained. Unless there’s an issue, of course. Similarly, after you finish a video call or stream a show on Hulu, you likely don’t contemplate the journey that data took to and from your device. Unless there’s a problem.
Public surveys and increased funding for broadband indicate that there is a problem and growing dissatisfaction with our internet infrastructure as a whole. Some communities lack access to high-speed internet, while others struggle with outdated technology and increasing bandwidth demands. Many also face issues of affordability or service monopolies. States and local communities across the country are now working to address these problems by identifying the best solutions to meet their broadband needs.
The most common approach has been to provide financial grants to local internet service providers (ISPs) willing to expand their services to the “last mile” of connectivity. Less common but equally important is the investment in open-access “middle mile” broadband infrastructure, which aims to increase competition among local ISPs, lower costs, and provide more options for citizens. Successful broadband expansion plans will likely involve a combination of connectivity layers to deliver the best overall results.
So, what exactly is the middle mile? It can be simplified as the network infrastructure between your ISP and the global internet network. It consists of high-capacity fiber lines that carry data across the country from global internet stations to ISPs near you. Sometimes, this middle mile directly connects anchor tenants like government agencies, utilities, schools, and hospitals.
The last mile infrastructure, on the other hand, transfers data from the middle mile to end-users in communities such as residences and businesses. This network can be cable-based, fiber-based, wireless, or satellite and is usually owned and built by local ISPs. In essence, middle mile infrastructure acts as the intermediary between your ISP and the high-speed world wide web, bringing broadband closer to your community for easier access.
However, in many areas, there is no middle mile network nearby to connect last-mile infrastructure, or the existing middle mile is owned by a large ISP. This can lead to high prices for internet access and limited options for consumers. Developing public, open-access middle mile infrastructure can help solve this problem by expanding internet networks to unserved and underserved communities while promoting competition among ISPs and lowering costs.
Some states have already recognized the benefits of middle mile infrastructure. California, for example, has planned a $3.25-billion investment in middle mile infrastructure, focusing on building the network along state highways and roads to provide access to rural and remote regions. Massachusetts, Northwest Colorado’s Project THOR, and other regions are also investing in middle mile networks to improve connectivity.
To support the development of middle mile infrastructure, communities can take advantage of federal funding, including the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the recently passed infrastructure bill. These funds can help finance broadband projects and narrow the digital divide. As states expand their middle mile networks, they should consider leveraging state transportation departments’ rights-of-way, identifying key anchor institutions, planning for last-mile services, and promoting residential broadband connections. By embracing diverse connectivity strategies, successful broadband expansion plans can deliver comprehensive results.