Some of the most original ideas I’ve heard recently about spurring rural broadband deployment are coming out of Mississippi, and they’re being spearheaded by hybrid wireless and wireline network operator C Spire. I talked today with C Spire Chief Innovation Officer Craig Sparks about the company’s latest efforts in this area, which involve a consortium that also includes Microsoft, Nokia, Airspan Networks and Siklu.

The C Spire rural broadband consortium aims to spur both deployment and adoption using a multi-pronged strategy that will vary from one community to another, Sparks explained.

C Spire already has deployed fiber to interconnect Mississippi communities and had hoped that other service providers would deploy last mile networks to individual homes in these communities, but that hasn’t happened to the extent that C Spire would like.

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“We need more people constructing the network at the edge,” said Sparks.

The C Spire rural broadband consortium aims to make that happen, he said.

C Spire Rural Broadband Consortium
Entities that potentially could construct those last-mile networks include wireless internet service providers, electric cooperatives and “other regional stewards,” C Spire noted in a press release about the new consortium.

One of the most original ideas Sparks told me about relates to these “other regional stewards.” Those stewards, he said, could be electricians or general contractors who build homes – entities that traditionally didn’t have the skill set to undertake a broadband deployment.

A key goal of the new consortium is to bring “really highly automated design and planning tools” to broadband deployment in order to broaden the base of entities that could potentially undertake a deployment. The highly automated tools, in combination with what C Spire calls “hyperlocal collaboration” – in other words, using local entities to deploy broadband equipment – will be “key enablers,” C Spire said.

Consortium Member Roles
Sparks sees a variety of fixed wireless technologies being required to address the various needs of rural broadband deployments – hence the participation of multiple wireless equipment providers in the consortium.

C Spire already uses a combination of equipment from Airspan, which acquired  Mimosa Networks, and Siklu to provide fixed wireless service in some communities. Different equipment operates in different spectrum bands, including a combination of sub-6 GHz and 60 GHz spectrum.

Another of the intriguing things Sparks told me was that contrary to traditional thinking, he sees equipment operating in the 60 GHz band playing a role in providing fixed wireless broadband to rural areas. Traditionally this technology has been thought of as a suburban solution but according to Sparks, it can also work in rural towns with as few as 45 people or up to about 200.

A key challenge with using 60 GHz equipment is that beams are very narrow to the point that they resemble laser beams, but Sparks sees the challenge of working with such narrow beams being addressed by deploying service under the tree canopy.

“You start in the ground and come up from fiber under the trees,” he explained. Transceivers might be mounted on trees, barns or poles, and signals will jump from one transceiver to another.

Engineering such a network today is laborious, Sparks said, but as part of its automation efforts, the consortium aims to automate that process as well.

Meanwhile, for high-acreage farms lying outside rural population centers, Sparks sees a role for TV white spaces technology such as what Microsoft is using for its Airband deployments. TV white spaces equipment operates in unlicensed portions of the 600 MHz band, making it well suited for deployment on macro towers and thereby enabling it to cover great distances.

Whatever technology is used, however, C Spire will insist on excellent reliability and performance, said Sparks.

“It has to be low-latency . . . and have low packet loss,” he said. In addition, he said the service must remain up during a rainstorm.

Other information Sparks provided about consortium members’ roles: Microsoft will be involved in spurring broadband adoption through digital skills initiatives, Sparks said. He also noted that C Spire already uses Nokia for its radio access network and that Nokia’s role will include “solving some real- world problems” involving fixed wireless.

C Spire isn’t looking for a traditional return on investment from its participation in the new consortium, according to Sparks. Instead, he said the company sees the consortium as part of its ongoing efforts to use broadband to stimulate economic development in Mississippi.

Additional details about the consortium’s plans, including other consortium members, will be forthcoming, Sparks noted.

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