Billions of dollars in funding are flowing to rural cooperatives, municipal utilities and internet service providers across America as part of a 10-year program to bring broadband internet services to remote and underserved regions. The need for a planned approach to building out fiber and wireless networks is growing in urgency.

Rural service providers have now been awarded portions of the $16 billion available under Phase 1 of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). The process of planning the build-out of these networks can be greatly enhanced by using geospatial tools, such as Esri’s ArcGIS, that enable these rural 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 — these rural 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 these rural providers’ managers to make decisions based on meeting both short-term and long-term objectives.

Intriguing Possibilities

Providers serving rural America have three basic options for bringing broadband connectivity to underserved regions:

  1. Build a network backbone of high-capacity infrastructure that will carry internet connections to rural and remote areas.
  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 co-op and municipal 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 their awarded RDOF funding.


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

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