Shining a light on the dark spots

Senior Reporter Jonathan Davies wonders whether P3s can help bring connectivity to North America’s rural communities

As Covid-19 forced the world to adapt to new ways of living, some regions found working in the 21st century a whole lot easier than others.

For people who live in cities or towns, the transition to working from home, although not without its difficulties, had the most important element already lined up: connectivity.

In rural communities, however, the transition was a whole different story – with the pandemic shining a light on connectivity dark spots the world over.

The challenge of rolling out broadband to regions with low-population density lies in the business case, with providers unable to recoup infrastructure costs; but as Covid-19 inspires a rethink on how we all live and work, momentum is gathering on public sector-led broadband initiatives.

With this new wave of impetus, and public coffers struggling, could this be the moment for P3s to rise to the challenge?

Across the United States, authorities at all levels have been considering the model.

In Tennessee, Governor Bill Lee announced that $61m is going to be spent on network expansions, adding that the “critical” infrastructure requires P3s, and that “those are happening”.

In neighbouring Virginia, Greene County has highlighted broadband and telecommunications as target sectors for their recently released guidelines that are the first steps of using P3s.

Fellow Virginian, Supervisor Duane Adams of the Mineral District, Louisa County, said that the recently committed $15m of broadband expansion is trying to show the market that they are “at the table and ready to take part in bringing fiber to the citizens of the country”.

Up in Michigan, Filer township identified in its new infrastructure masterplan that P3s are key to “[addressing] the economic challenges to broadband in rural areas”, and are a necessity to make the region an “economic success in the 21st century”.

While enthusiasm is building, more organized state-level leadership may be needed to help get projects rolling on a significant scale.

Perhaps the proposed Connect America Now Act to incentivize investment into rural broadband through the use of P3s, and which recently received support from Georgia congressman Drew Ferguson, could help provide the central support and guidance needed.

It’s not just talk either: projects are beginning to come forward.

Arizona recently revealed an RFI on a state-wide fiber P3 rollout along its highways; North Carolina has released an RFQ on a similar highway-fiber project; and the City of Inglewood, California, is at RFP stage for its broadband project.

In these early days, many questions still remain over P3s’ role in the future of broadband, but many key ingredients are coming together.

Alongside public sector enthusiasm, more and more P3 players are investing in fiber firms, for example DIF’s recent acquisition of Canadian firm Valley Fiber, and Macquarie’s bid for Italian firm Open Fiber, signaling that interest is there, and that firms are watching.

The impact of the pandemic has changed the way many people work forever, meaning there is now a growing clamor for public sector action to deliver the facilities that people need. Just as citizens complain to their public representatives when their transit options are limiting their ability to get to work, so they are now calling for better broadband to work at home. That pressure means there is now more impetus for the public sector to act, and make these deals stack up for private investors.

We know that P3s can connect the public and private sectors. When it comes to broadband, the question now is whether they can connect rural communities to the modern world.