4 min read

Five Challenges to Closing the Digital Divide and How to Solve Them

Five Challenges to Closing the Digital Divide and How to Solve Them

Challenge #1: Equipment and material shortages

Today's broadband equipment was built for yesterday's approach to building fiber networks. As a result, the industry doesn't have the necessary equipment for today's needs, let alone the needs of the future. We've allowed the equipment to become reactive rather than proactive. We're already behind for 2025 and 2026.

Glass is the new toilet paper. The stockpilers can safely say they've already got their future “fiber requirements locked in”—one of my favorite quotes of late. Glass trading mimics the emotional ups and downs of bitcoin these days. This is before the infrastructure bill money gets doled out. Imagine what will happen after.

Challenge #2: Skilled-labor shortages

The broadband industry was already suffering from labor shortages before The Great Resignation. Stretched too thin for too long, today’s fiber technicians and engineers can be more selective in the jobs they take on and the prices they charge for those jobs because the power dynamics have shifted in their favor.

The eleven largest telecom trade associations said in a letter to congress that they'll need an additional 850,000 man years of trained fiber-technician labor between now and 2025 to keep pace with demand. That translates to a quarter of a million new technicians, assuming no current technicians change careers or retire, which is obviously highly unlikely.

These labor crunches will only worsen as fewer people are left to take on more and more work.

Challenge #3: High construction costs

It's no wonder that equipment, material and labor shortages have caused high construction costs. Higher costs can mean delays or setbacks in numerous ways, from raising capital to timelines to broadband access. Those who need connectivity the most - those in rural areas, those who have low incomes, historically marginalized communities—will be especially vulnerable to higher construction costs. Their needs may be put on the back burner for longer when construction costs become a barrier for communities and service providers.

Challenge #4: Inaccurate, missing and non-interoperable data

Of course, mapping is a problem, but maps are only a corner piece to a 1,000-piece data puzzle. The data is misrepresented. The big providers cherry pick where they build networks, so they can charge the most to the most affluent customers.

Too often, the broadband industry relies on data that's five years old or older, which, let's face it, is ancient in data terms. Not cleaning, validating or assuring the quality of data causes just as many problems. But perhaps our biggest data problem is not defining what's crucial, what can be used from end to end. If you have an army of engineers and designers at your disposal without the right data, information architecture and interoperable schemas, you can't design a network efficiently or effectively.

Challenge #5: Lack of transparency 

We're operating under a dearth of both transparency and collaboration on the macro and micro levels. On the macro level, Internet service providers (ISPs) hoard information so that we don't know who's spending what where. On the micro level, projects and partners are too siloed, not understanding the bigger picture. Gaps galore.

The solution: a new paradigm

We need to challenge our biases, abandon our preconceived notions and truly listen. We need to partner with our competitors. We need to break free of the thinking that got us here because it’s not going to get us there. We’ve got to innovate across the broader ecosystem. We’ve got to be smarter with our resources, labor and data. Even with the coming influx of capital, we’ve got to be better stewards.

Pro prototypes

We need to explore alternative approaches now to design and prototype equipment that can be tested, manufactured and rolled out two to three years from now. We should focus on equipment innovations that simplify the build process and stretch our limited material supply further. Some of these innovations—like pre-connectorized cables—already exist, though they require more accurate and precise designs with smaller margins for error. With data-driven methodologies and attention to data quality, we can mitigate those risks.

Biarri Networks had the privilege in participating in an experimental project to help an ISP model a new piece of equipment to simplify the construction of aerial networks, which can be expensive to build, limiting accessibility on the consumer side. We approached the model thinking about all-in costs while keeping the end-to-end process in mind. It proved to us just how much is possible when we work together.

More efficient and effective designs

Autodesign or network design powered by artificial intelligence can help iterate to design and deploy the lowest cost networks that use the least amount of materials and take a fraction of the time. It's a revolutionary approach to fiber-network design and construction that's machine-assisted but human-led. And it's Biarri Network's revolutionary approach to fiber network design.

Constructability rules

The builder deals with the brunt of any design or engineering issues taking the plan from theory to reality. Which is why we asked what helps you go faster in the field. There's nothing like variations to the design during construction to wreck the budget and timeline. Construction halts while design changes get approved. So we developed constructability rules to minimize in-field variations. Even with an algorithmic approach to design, it's important to talk to the builder first.

A new, open, standardized-data model

To start, we need to standardize which data we capture and how we capture it. That data should then be made transparent to all stakeholders, like open-source code, allowing anyone to inspect, modify and enhance it. A data-driven approach will allow us to track and report every data transaction throughout the process. All stakeholders could then see the deployment progression in real time.

We need radical transparency and collaborative innovation

Clarity and transparency generate goodwill - and speed. Speed translates into scale with reduced costs and greater connectivity. It’s going to take the entire broadband village to help us bridge the digital divide and create high-speed

Internet for the 21st century and beyond. The stakes are too high for too many people. We can’t afford to fail. It’s going to take a moonshot. We’re ready. Are you?

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