As the Wheel Turns: A Hub-and-Scope Approach to Universal Broadband
— Dec 23, 2021
Through 2021, the universal-broadband group (“Connecting Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States”) of Arizona State University’s ShapingEDU community has been meeting regularly to discuss the future of universal broadband access throughout the United States. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act became law in November 2021, and new opportunities abounded. Knowing (back in May 2021) that some funding would be coming, ShapingEDU Innovator in Residence Ruben Puentedura led a group through a Modified Delphi process to begin narrowing down ideas.
The recently-released report (“Delphi Project Report: Opportunities to Further Universal Broadband in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,” November 22, 2021) which was a result of that process includes two recommendations. The first is to use new or established community infrastructure (i.e., educational institutions, libraries, etc.) as a hub-and-spoke distribution model. When hearing the term hub-and-spoke, many people immediately think of how airlines and package carriers route people and supplies through a major point of distribution, aka the “hub.” They fly into the hub and then are sent back out to where they want to go, aka the “spokes.” This creates efficiency for the airlines and carries and gets people where they need to be for, what we hope, is less money than if they had to run more direct flights between cities or travel by another mode of transportation. In the case of universal broadband distribution, having these centers of broadband distribution (hubs) equipped to manage the community’s digital traffic presence will provide a more even playing field to all who require access (the spokes). This is what could be done in the short term, while in the long term the same networking configuration could be used to disseminate knowledge about uses for universal broadband.
Advantages and disadvantages were discussed while the Modified Delphi approach was underway. The first advantage mentioned in the report for using a hub-and-scope model was the ability to shorten deployment and implementation timelines, along with flexibility around “dig-once” scenarios. The second advantage focused on how the physical structure could easily be transformed into a knowledge-transfer infrastructure to support future developments and sustainability. The first challenge mentioned in the report focused on the lack of infrastructure for the proposed educational hubs. The second challenge was detailing how the hubs became the beneficiary of community support and could take advantage of the situation to advance their own agendas. A suggestion was to build in community accountability.
The second recommendation was to review all projects from a broad point of view so that when project implementation began a “dig-once” perspective around excavations could be taken into consideration to save funds, time, work, and community disruptions. This type of approach goes back as far as the time of the Romans and could be seen in the United States as early as the 1800s in Chicago’s sewer project.
The advantages of this approach include having fewer challenges from local residents and restrictions. This is important given that any infrastructure installation process will take time; by digging, they typically do not have to worry about wireless tower placement disputes. In addition, these projects typically have a capacity surplus and provide speed features as well as cost savings. Except in climates that are known for flooding, dig-once projects can withstand more weather incidents than their above-ground counterparts.
There are, on the other hand, disadvantages to this approach. The first is around the availability of 5G and making certain that this type of technology be taken into account before digging commences.
A second disadvantage is that corporate stakeholders who currently control the broadband delivery pipeline to homes may not want to support this new infrastructure build as it may leave them out of some of their revenue streams. There may also be confusion from recent projects which sound like dig-once but really are not. It will be vital for clear distinctions to be in place in order to make these plans primed for success.
The Modified Delphi process used in determining these two recommendations clearly demonstrate support to aid in finding fast ways to implement universal broadband access, using the hub-and-spoke, and more sustainable future with less disruption with “dig-once.”