Despite heavy investment in new fiber infrastructure in recent years, the United States lags much of the developed world in fiber access. Recent FCC estimates indicate that only 30% of households nationwide have access to fiber broadband. Similarly, the US trails in fiber adoption as well; under 14% of fixed broadband subscriptions are fiber connections, compared to over 64% in Sweden and over 78% in South Korea.

Global Fiber Adoption (source: OECD, via statista.com)

Why is this the case? In this article, we’ll look at some of the major obstacles to widespread fiber availability, plus what some communities and companies are doing to overcome them.

Why Isn’t There More Fiber?

A primary reason for limited fiber access is the incredibly high costs of laying new fiber. Installation can cost up to tens of thousands of dollars per mile, which can add up quickly over geographically large rural areas. Quite understandably, the sparse populations and low relative incomes in rural areas pose a challenge for service providers looking to generate adequate returns on this investment.

Similarly, inconsistency in regulation and local subsidies can create further gaps. Outside of service providers, community fiber access can come from an uneven combination of utilities’ investments in smart grid infrastructure, real estate development projects that offer fiber access as a perk to tenants or customers, and the municipalities themselves.

What Can Be Done?

Given the local funding scarcity, many rural networks rely on federal funds to expand and upgrade their infrastructure, including the recently announced Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. While these programs help considerably, gaps in funding remain.

As a result, new players in the private sector is stepping in to fill the void. Neighborly, a startup based on San Francisco and Boston, offers to “design, finance, build, and maintain open access networks” for municipal and rural governments. This assistance can both decrease the financial burden on the localities, and also pave the way for service providers to enter new and underserved markets. the resulting choice in the marketplace should drive down costs for end users and open up access to new services, including telehealth. The company has brought fiber coverage to areas ranging from the sparsely-populated region surrounding Mount Katahdin in north central Maine, to Stockton, CA (pop. 311,000).

If you operate a rural or municipal network with limited fiber, check out our guide to cost-effective ways to increase fiber capacity.

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