Broadband Internet access has been a topic of conversation for years, but the pandemic made it a priority. It made us all realize high-speed Internet is a necessity, from educating children to giving businesses opportunities in the new digital economy.
Recognizing its importance, the U.S. government has allocated more than $100 billion in funding for rural broadband infrastructure over five years. This investment is geared towards closing the digital divide and aims to ensure every household in the U.S. has high-speed Internet by 2030.
Part of that investment needs to be allocated for testing. Ensuring proper deployment, installation, and maintenance poses several challenges related to coverage, interference, capacity, and remote monitoring. Network operators can optimize broadband services in rural areas, enhance coverage, ensure reliability, and maintain a positive overall user experience through proper testing techniques, processes, and solutions.
The Rise of Rural Broadband
Rural broadband activity is on the rise. An NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association survey found that its members are increasing their fiber-to-the-home deployments and offering more robust broadband services. According to the survey, 79.3% of NTCA member customers had fiber-to-the-home connections in 2022, up from 75.0% in 2021. Access to 100 Mbps or higher download speed rose to 81.9% in 2022, compared to 75.6% the year prior.
Government funding provides a financial incentive to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who traditionally serve rural customers. It also brings new players to the market. Electric utilities and cooperatives are beginning to deliver broadband to rural areas. In some cases, they are partnering with ISPs. In other situations, they leverage existing utility infrastructure for new high-speed Internet connections.
Many electric utilities are investing in a fiber optic backbone to operate their electric utility systems. Fiber is run between many substations on an electric system. According to Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) data, electric companies and co-ops now deliver fiber broadband to approximately 675,000 homes. It is expected to spike to 3.6 million within five years.
The increase in rural broadband deployment does not come easily. In addition to testing challenges, other obstacles arise to deploying broadband in rustic areas. Many of those barriers are listed in table 1.
Table 1: Challenges associated with deploying and operating rural broadband networks.
Testing Rural Networks
As you can see, field contractors have many more obstacles when they venture into rural communities. These challenges can impact broadband deployment efficiency, cost, and timelines in rural regions.
A key issue is finding experienced technicians. Proper testing of access points and the entire network’s performance requires specialized equipment and skilled technicians. Additionally, the remote location may hinder quick troubleshooting and resolution of issues.
To successfully address these hurdles, field contractors must carefully plan and adapt their strategies to suit the unique requirements of rural broadband deployment. Collaboration with local communities, government entities, and ISPs is essential to achieve success during deployment, installation, and operation.
Those responsible for rural broadband networks have many considerations regarding testing. Making the right decisions is critical to prevent additional truck rolls when the networks are turned on, and coverage gaps are revealed.
Interference and Spectrum Management: In rural areas with fewer users, there may be less interference from other signals. Managing available spectrum efficiently, however, is still critical for delivering optimal broadband service, as there is limited spectrum available in many rural locations.
Coverage and Connectivity: In rural areas, signal coverage and connectivity can be inconsistent due to geographical obstacles, low population density, and challenging terrain.
Network Capacity: Rural networks must accommodate an increasing number of connected devices, necessitating rigorous testing to ensure network capacity and performance.
Remote Locales: Maintenance and troubleshooting in remote locations can be time-consuming and expensive, making remote monitoring and diagnostics crucial.
Selecting Proper Test Solutions
Field technicians need multi-functional test solutions to meet rural broadband testing requirements. Solutions must offer robust test capabilities to limit the number of instruments they lug to sites. They must also be durable to withstand environmental conditions, lightweight, and have pre-set tests to simplify measurements.
Figure 1: RTSAs such as the MS2090A are essential to verify rural broadband networks.
One key solution is a real-time spectrum analyzer (RTSA), such as the Field Master Pro™ MS2090A (figure 1). It provides coverage mapping tools and real-time analysis so technicians can visualize signal coverage to better identify dead zones. Featuring an exceptional dynamic range of -164 dBm, the MS2090A can locate and analyze interference sources, aiding in interference mitigation.
Cable and antenna analyzers with advanced Distance-to-Fault (DTF) analysis and return loss/VSWR testing capabilities are also essential. The Site Master™ S820E microwave analyzer, with vector network analyzer (VNA) and vector voltmeter (VVM) options, as well as the Site Master™ S331E series, have best-in-class return loss and VSWR to identify antenna and cable issues more effectively, ensuring optimal signal transmission to reduce signal loss.
Network capacity and performance are integral to achieving broadband services. To ensure the rural networks meet specified key performance indicators (KPIs), a transport tester, such as the Network Master™ MT1000A, is necessary. The MT1000A all-in-one portable tester supports multi-gigabit Ethernet and has extensive testing functionalities to ensure network capacity and performance.
Given the distances between sites in rural networks, remote monitoring is necessary for cost- and time-efficient processes to maintain network operation. Solutions such as the Anritsu MS27102A enable remote monitoring of the spectrum and interference conditions, aiding in proactive maintenance and reducing downtime.
Download our new application note to learn more about the rural broadband market and testing techniques associated with rural broadband networks.