Billions of dollars in funding continue to flow to investor-owned utilities, cooperatives, municipals and internet service providers across America as part of the continued effort to bring broadband internet services to unserved and underserved regions. The need for a planned approach to building out networks is growing in urgency.

Both federal and state grants continue to be funded to bridge the digital divide in America. The process of planning the build-out of these broadband networks can be greatly enhanced by using geospatial tools, such as Esri’s ArcGIS, that enable providers to integrate large volumes of data into a single, easy-to-use database.

By leveraging the ArcGIS platform — with its web maps, field collection tools and functionality to import a vast array of data from computer-aided design (CAD) files, keyhole markup language (kmz) files and other geospatial sources into a database environment — providers gain the visibility they need for an accurate, current view of their networks and what they could become after a broadband build-out. ArcGIS is a geographic information system (GIS) owned by Esri that has the wide degree of functionality needed to host technical data in a geospatial format. This provides an accurate digital view of facilities, equipment, and potential site and path layouts. As an Esri Gold partner, Burns & McDonnell has developed custom features and functions within the technology that can be leveraged to deploy broadband services.

With this integrated technology, program delivery can be planned and modeled to show lists of potential sites, indefeasible right of use (IRU) fiber leases, microwave network maps and performance data of existing assets. The data can be integrated to enable rapid evaluation of routing and installation options. Migration of optimal new infrastructure routes can be planned side by side, enabling providers’ managers to make decisions based on meeting both short-term and long-term objectives.

Intriguing Possibilities

Broadband providers have three basic options for bringing connectivity to unserved and underserved regions:

  1. Build a network backbone of high-capacity infrastructure that will carry internet connections to wherever it’s needed.
  2. Build the middle-mile fiber-optic backhaul connections needed between the core internet backbone and the customer-facing internet service provider (ISP).
  3. Connect the last mile of individual connections to the wider network as an ISP through either fiber-optic or wireless connections.

A Winning Strategy

For many investor-owned utilities serving rural and small-town America, the middle-mile niche might be the best fit with current operational profiles. Many are already familiar with fiber, having already installed fiber-optic cables along rights-of-way on utility poles and other existing infrastructure. These existing assets and experience give them a cost advantage over telecommunications carriers. In addition, some of these utilities are amid distribution system upgrades in support of new system demands and are already building out wireless and fiber telecommunications infrastructure to improve system controls and reliability. Adding capacity to accommodate internet services would only be a marginal incremental cost and this can be part of a deployment strategy with grant funding.


An open access network can help bridge the gaps in broadband connection disparities for rural communities.

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Editor’s note: This post was originally published Dec. 16, 2020, and has been updated for context and accuracy.

Brian Sanfilippo leads fiber business at Burns & McDonnell. His experience includes managing and developing robust telecommunications solutions at locations across the United States.