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FOA Resources For Rural Broadband Networks

rural broadband

This page was created to accompany the FOA video Lecture 70 Rural Broadband, Obstacles & Opportunities as a resource for those contemplating, planning or starting rural broadband projects.

FOA has worked with many projects focused on fiber to the home and rural broadband. Below is an article from the FOA Newsletter in August, 2021 where we show the similarities of rural broadband and rural electrification a century ago. The lessons learned from rural electrification can be applied to broadband today and have been by a number of very successful rural networks and even some areas with larger cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee. Following that are other articles from FOA Newsletters that should be interesting.

There is a link below to the FOA FTTH Handbook which is a great resource for those involved in broadband projects. We also include links to information relevant to rural networks in the FOA Guide, our online technical resource with about 1,000 pages of technical information and links to the various FOA publications that may be of interest, FOA YouTube video lectures on FTTH and free online courses at Fiber U, the FOA online website.

Always feel free to contact FOA if you have questions.

FOA has a page for organizations working on broadband projects listing resources useful in starting a project and finding funding.

Latest FOA Book: Fiber Broadband

FOA Guide To Fiber BroadbandIn less than half a century, fiber optics has revolutionized communications and to a large extent, society in general. Broadband, what many today call high speed Internet access, has become a necessity for everyone, not a luxury. The technology that makes broadband possible is fiber optics, connecting the continents, cities, and just about everybody. Even fiber to the home (FTTH) brings broadband to hundreds of millions worldwide.

How did we get from an era when communications was making a telephone call or sending a telegram to today’s world where every piece of information – and misinformation – is available at the click of a mouse or touch on a screen? How did we get from a time when a phone was connected on copper wires to being able to connect practically anywhere on a handheld device with more computing power than was available to scientists and engineers only decades ago?

How does broadband work? Without fiber optics it would not work.

This book is not the typical FOA technical textbook - it is written for anyone who wants to understand fiber broadband or fiber optics or the Internet. It's also aimed at STEM teachers wh want to include communications technology in their classes. This book will try to explain not only how fiber broadband works, but how it was developed. It is intended to be an introduction to communications technology appropriate for a communications course at almost any level (junior high, high school or college,) for managers involved with broadband projects, or for anyone who just wonders how all this stuff works.

The Fiber Optic Association Guide To Fiber Broadband  

Paperback available from Amazon or most booksellers. Kindle version coming soon.

Nobody knows more about fiber broadband - especially rural fiber broadband - than the Fiber Optic Association. If you are working on an IIJA/BEAD program contact us for a special package of educational materials for your staff.

What Is Rural Anyway?

FOA Newsletter, March 2022

When we, like many of you, think about rural areas, we usually think of farms like the photo above of a farm in Wisconsin, but how realistic is the idea of "rural" being farms?

The USDA has statistics on farms that provide some insight. There are ~2.2million farms in the US, 96% are family farms which implies the rest are agribusiness. Here's the USDA breakout:

2,204,792 farms
1,925,799 small family farms (<$250,000 annual revenue)
86,551 large family farms ($250-500,000 annual revenue)
101,265 very large family farms (>$500,000 annual revenue)
93,177 agribusiness farms

The 2.1 million family farms represent only ~2% if the US population, an estimated 7 million people actually living on farms (US Farm Bureau).

But the US Census Bureau says ~60 million Americans live in "rural" areas. Where are the other ~53 million people?

Perhaps there is a better way to look at this rural/urban divide. The Census says " Urban areas make up only 3 percent of the entire land area of the country but are home to more than 80 percent of the population. Conversely, 97 percent of the country’s land mass is rural but only 19.3 percent of the population lives there."

So about 90% of the "rural" population in the US do not live on farms. Where are they? They are living in small towns and low density or housing clusters outside the urban areas. Here is an example, the State of Missouri overlaid with the FCC map of broadband coverage, where the darker areas indicate better coverage and the lighter areas indicate poor coverage. (Note these FCC maps are notoriously optimistic.)

As you can see, large areas are unserved (lightest green areas) or underserved (middle level green).


Map of the state of Missouri, overlaid with FCC coverage map.

When large service providers talk about the "impossibility" of rural broadband, they want you to think about farms and believe their tales of how it's too expensive to connect rural areas to broadband. We humbly would refer to this as "bullshit" and refer you to the FOA Newsletter article about "Fighting Misinformation" in the July 2019 FOA Newsletter.


Closeup of a mostly under- or unserved area in Missouri shows it is full of small towns with a population of a few hundreds to over ten thousand..

In fact, much of "rural" America is small towns, easy to provide with FTTH for broadband, You do not need tens or hundreds of thousands of subscribers to build a FTTH PON; a small town, suburban housing development or HOA is easy to connect using today's PON equipment that makes small networks cost effective.  Cable lengths might be a bit longer in a small town, but installation is often easier, especially if aerial cabling is permitted. If not, microtrenching along roadways or blowing microducts in available ducts is usually possible. And the new generation mini OLTs are ideal for these small size towns.

It's actually possible that small rural clusters may be easier and cheaper to connect with FTTH than dense urban areas where cable installation can be troublesome.

Back to the farms. Often farms cluster together so the cost can be shared among a group of farmers who cooperate - or form a coop or use an existing coop. And perhaps many can afford their own connections even if it is expensive.

Small family farms represent ~15% of the US farm market of ~$140 billion/year, ~$21 billion or $10,000 each
Large and very large family farms represent ~63% of the farm market, ~$88 billion or ~$0.5 million each.
Agribusiness represents ~21% of the market, ~$30 billion or an average of ~$30 million/year each.

The larger farms are businesses with significant revenue and are accustomed to investing in equipment to raise their productivity. One would suppose that if they could afford a new John Deere tractor (~$40,000 to $900,000 each), the cost of a fiber optic cable would be within reach.

How To Build Rural Broadband, Learning From History

FOA Newsletter, August, 2021  

You can spend hours reading about the lack of broadband in rural America. Here are two recent examples from the FCC and The Verge. But while AT&T CEO John Stankey told Wall St. analysts that he doesn't think there is any way to extend fiber to rural areas at all, FOA has worked with dozens of groups wanting to build rural broadband and documented several DIY FTTH systems in the FOA Guide. We have also documented in the FOA Newsletter (June 2021) ways that make rural broadband more feasible using new technologies like remote OLTs for GPON networks.

As we continue to research rural broadband strategies and technologies, we continue to work on other projects. One of those projects involves assisting EPRI (the Electric Power Research Institute, the electrical utilities "Bell Labs" or "Telcordia") with their strategic plans for fiber optics in their networks. It occurred to us that installing rural fiber networks was similar to the development of rural electrical networks in America a century ago.

So we began researching the electrification of rural America. In our research, we found a most interesting article called "Rural Electrification" by Robert T. Beall, an economist at the US Department of Agriculture in the 1940 USDA Yearbook of Agriculture on the USDA website. Reading this (and we highly recommend you read it too), it becomes obvious that rural electrification and rural broadband build-out have many similarities.

rural electrification in america
Rural Electrical Cables From the 1940 USDA Yearbook of Agriculture

According to the Beall article, in 1925 only 3.2% of America’s 6.3 million farms had electricity. Ten years later, it had only grown to 10.9%, in part due to the depression but also due to the inherent problem with rural areas, economics. Beall’s article quotes a report on the problem.

After a careful study of the rural electrification problem, the Mississippi Valley Committee reported, in October 1934, that—several reasons might be advanced to explain why only 10 percent of the Nation's farms purchase electricity. These are the lack of interest by operating companies in rural electrification, high cost of line construction because of the unnecessarily expensive type of line used, onerous restrictions covering rural line extensions, and high rates.

Beall then comments: Inasmuch as the private utility companies own and control well over 90 percent of the electric-power industry in the United States, the extension of lines into rural areas prior to 1935 depended primarily on the willingness of these companies to serve farmers. Sound familiar? But the industry felt no responsibility to find out whether construction in rural areas might not be simpler and less expensive than that in urban centers and therefore require less capital investment per farm.

Then Beall notes that by 1940, 25% of rural farms now had electricity. What happened to cause such massive growth in the span of only 5 years? During the Depression, rural electrification was specifically included in the emergency Relief Appropriation act of 1935 and President Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) by Executive Order No. 7037 on May 11, 1935.

The effect of government incentives was felt rapidly. By 1940 about 25% of rural America had electrical service. Much of the expansion was done by a new type of utility, nonprofit cooperatives, created by farmers who discovered that they could organize and get assistance in building their own rural electrical companies when large for-profit companies would not consider them.

As has already been indicated, the principal type of borrower of R.E.A. funds is the cooperative, nonprofit association of rural residents organized for the specific purpose of constructing and operating a rural electric system. Although this type of organization  for the distribution of electric power in rural areas has been widely used in certain foreign countries, notably Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, it was almost unknown in the United States until the establishment of the Government's rural-electrification program.

Coops also learned how to lower costs for building networks by simplifying aerial cable systems and using long-span construction. Some of their techniques allowed building networks at less than half the cost of traditional urban/suburban networks.

Now go back and reread the last half-dozen paragraphs, replacing "electrical" with "broadband." Uncanny, isn't it? Even more so now that the current US administration has included $50 billion for broadband expansion in the current infrastructure bill.

REA (now RUS - Rural Utilities Service) still exists and has expanded its scope to include telecommunications and water. FOA has been on conference programs with RUS people and have found they know the problem and understand that fiber is the solution.

Part of the solution depends on the same technical changes suggested for rural electrification, not copying what works in urban areas but rethinking FTTH technology for rural areas, for example using ADSS cable along power lines with remote OLTs and sharing fibers with other communications users, including the electrical coops themselves , to reduce the costs of building FTTH.

Of course, being a large government program, there are going to be problems making sure the infrastructure bill money goes to the right places. The last try at funding rural broadband, RDOF (Rural Digital Opportunity Fund), appears to have approved funding to a number of questionable projects. In a recent FCC press release (FCC Makes Available Over 311 Million For Broadband in 36 States, While Taking Steps To Clean Up The RDOF Program) some of those questionable projects were discussed.

As a result of today’s announcement, 48 broadband providers will bring 1 Gbps broadband speeds to nearly 200,000 homes and businesses over the next 10 years.

At the same time, the FCC also took steps to clean up the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund program. In light of complaints that the program was poised to fund broadband to parking lots and well-served urban areas, the FCC sent letters to 197 winning bidders. The letters offer providers an opportunity to withdraw their funding requests from those places already with service or where significant questions of waste have been raised.

Whenever a large Federal funding program is announced in the US, lobbyists and consultants are ready to pounce. With $50 Billion at stake, it will be a challenge to ensure it is spent wisely. It is promising, especially if rural coops - electrical and telco - can use the money wisely, and could result in the connection of more than 25 million rural users or more with fiber. That would make a big difference in America and continue the legacy of REA.

"Rural Electrification" is fascinating reading, covering the development of rural electrical coops. We recommend it highly.

What About Rural Telephones?
In the 1930s and 1940s, the US government funded the electrification of the rural areas of America as part of the stimulus program to bring America out of the depression. Some of the areas were not finished until after the war. Some of these areas never got phone service from the major telcos because of the high cost, so the rural phone cooperative became as widespread as the rural electric coop. To help rural areas, the rural Electrification Act was ammended to allow low cost loans to build rural telephone systems. (History of rural phone systems in the US.)

FOA FTTH/Broadband Resources

Assistance in Starting And Funding Broadband Projects, Including US IIJA Funding.  

Note: Most of the material in the links below assumes the reader has a general knowledge of fiber optics and fiber optic networks. Id you need some background, we recommend you start with two self-study courses at Fiber U, FOA's free online learning site.

Introduction To Fiber Optics In Communications  

Basic Fiber Optics  

FOA FTTH Handbook

FOA's FTTH Handbook: We've gathered all our information on FTTH from the FOA Guide and past issues of the FOA Newsletter and edited it into a 112 page "FTTH Handbook." We even added new sections on planning, designing and managing FTTH Projects. An entire chapter is devoted to DIY (do-it-yourself) FTTH projects in rural areas.
The Fiber Optic Association Fiber To The Home Handbook is available from Amazon in print and Kindle editions.

FOA Guide
The FOA Guide is FOA's extensive knowledgebase on fiber optics, with almost 1,000 pages of technical information. It's written by FOA's worldwide network of technical advisors and is non-commercial, just reliable technical information from experienced fiber techs, many of whom are teaching the subject.

Here are some topics related to broadband:

FTTH (Fiber To The Home)                                     
Fiber to the home (FTTH) Overview,   
FTTH Introduction
FTTH Architectures,
FTTH PON Standards, Specifications and Protocols,
FTTH Network Design
FTTH Installation
FTTH Customer Premises Installation  
FTTH Testing  ,
FTTH Case Studies: Do-It-Yourself FTTH  
FTTH Project Management   

There is also a section on Fiber For Wireless Networks. that covers both cellular and WiFi networks.                                 

Fiber U

Fiber U is FOA's Free Online Learning Site, with over two dozen free self-study courses starting with the Basics of Fiber Optics and including a number of courses on technical skills and applications of fiber optics.

Free Online "FTTH" Course on Fiber U

Free Online "Fiber For Wireless" Course on Fiber U

Fiber U online courses
Take the Fiber U FTTH course and Certificate Test FREE
Fiber U self-study courses themselves have always been free, but we have charged for the Fiber U Certificate of Completion test which uses an online testing service. So everyone can take advantage of all the new and updated FTTH materials we've created, FOA will offer the testing for the Fiber U Certificate of Completion for the Fiber U FTTx self-study course free to everyone completing the course. Tell your employees, customers, everybody!


Designing FTTH Networks? If you are involved in the design of FTTH networks but new to fiber optics, start with the Fiber U Fiber Optic Network Design course then take the Fiber U FTTx self-study course.

FOA YouTube Channel
FOA Videos On YouTube

FOA has a YouTube channel with over 100 videos on fiber optics, including 70+ lectures and many technical instructional videos. Including are these videos on Fiber Optics:

FOA's YouTube Channel:
Lecture 25: FTTx - Fiber To The Home, Premises, Curb, Business, etc.(Overview)
Lecture 63 FTTH Network Architectures  
Lecture 64 FTTH Passive Optical Networks (PONs) 
Lecture 65 FTTH Network Design 
Lecture 66 FTTH Network Installation and Test  
Lecture 70 Rural Broadband- Obstacles and Opportunities  

FOA Newsletter
FOA publishes a monthly newsletter that covers the fiber optic industry and FOA educational activities. We recommend you subscribe to keep up with the latest news in fiber optics. Here are some recent articles on FTTH and broadband.

Contact the FOA  

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