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The Open Access Model: How it Brings Connectivity to Underserved Communities

In a previous article we talked about how “open-access” fiber networks are one future-proof way to bring connectivity rural Canada.

Put simply, these networks divide ownership into several layers: the physical infrastructure, the maintenance and operation of the network, and the service delivery may all be owned or managed by different entities. In some cases, the infrastructure is owned by a government entity, such as a municipality.

How Does the OAN Model Work?

Until the late 20th century, television and telephone networks were separate — limited by the prevailing technology at the time. Towards the end of the century, however, innovations allowed providers to build a single, high-performance network to carry telephone, internet, and cable signals. 

The challenge, of course, is that in many countries those networks have been built by private, for-profit companies, and those companies invest capital where it makes financial sense for them. In many cases, that has left lower-income or rural areas underserved. These large telecoms may also act as service providers, which limits choices for consumers.

The OAN model has either two or three layers, which separate the owner of the network from the service provider. This has several advantages: for municipalities, for example, the costs to build a network are much lower than for private companies. Local governments are also more willing to invest capital in these areas, as their success isn’t measured by shareholder returns. Many local governments across North America are embracing the opportunity to build their own networks. 

Separated from the owner, private companies — such as Valo — can provide services to manage and maintain the network. This is the second layer of the OAN model. It frees the infrastructure owner from the responsibilities of management, allowing them to channel expertise elsewhere. 

The third “layer” of the model is made up of retail service providers — the companies who provide bundles directly to the consumer. Opening the network to more than one provider can reduce the cost to customers, further improving access. 

How is it future proof?

No one can predict the future, or what technological innovations we’ll develop in the coming years, but what we can do is build networks that are durable, reliable, and far outpace any capacity we can currently imagine. 

Fiber-optic cable, which is made of glass, outperforms traditional copper cable in the following ways:

  • Capacity and speed: Data moves across fiber-optic cable as pulses of light. The cables themselves are clusters of fine glass filament and are capable of sending terabytes of data at about 70% of the speed of light. This gives networks a lot more ‘breathing room’ as we begin to live more of our lives online, ensuring the data we need is delivered at optimal speeds.
  • Durability: fiber-optic cable is more resistant to corrosion, which greatly reduces the cost burden of maintenance or replacement. 
  • Reliability: fiber is less susceptible to interference than copper cable, including from third parties and nearby electrical devices, and it’s more reliable during harsh conditions. 

All these benefits – longevity, cost-effectiveness, and capacity — translate to benefits for every layer of the OAN. For those who build the infrastructure and handle maintenance, the up-front investment pays off in lower costs for upkeep down the road. For the service providers, solid infrastructure allows them to offer their customers reliable connections at top speeds — and the promise of the ability to keep up with future innovations.

OAN is Catching On

The pandemic brought into focus not only how essential internet access is, but how essential it is for that connectivity to have the speed and capacity to serve customers’ needs. Rural communities in Canada are underserved by slow networks and spotty coverage — farmers require just as much bandwidth as any urban business, and residents everywhere require reliable connections to fully participate in modern society. 

Many communities across North America are experimenting with open-access networks to bring the internet to rural or hard-to-reach communities. In Alberta, three municipalities have pooled their resources and created a non-profit entity, Rural CONNECT, to fund a network for their communities, with Valo providing maintenance services. Open-access networks have been popular in Europe for decades, and investor interest in the model in the United States is ramping up as the government allocates increased funding for infrastructure in underserved areas. 

OAN is emerging as a viable model for rural areas, especially in countries like Canada, where vast stretches of land remain unconnected. At Valo, we’re excited about the possibilities and ready to bring our years of experience in high-speed infrastructure to waiting rural communities — in Alberta and beyond.

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