How digital twins can help internet providers close the rural broadband gap

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Despite sporadic pledges and years of subsidies, the last mile of the broadband superhighway has failed to reach many U.S. country roads. Some 18 million to 36 million Americans currently lack broadband, creating a troubling rural digital divide.

Digital twins of broadband network infrastructure could change that by helping teams better understand costs and effectively prioritize sales efforts, Connected2Fiber CEO Ben Edmond told VentureBeat. His company is helping broadband providers create digital twins that use location-based data to align network construction with business opportunities.

“By digitizing the planning, the blueprint, and the execution of those projects, the industry will improve how the money is flowing,” Edmond said.

The stakes are high. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has allocated $9.2 billion for rural buildouts over the next 10 years. A second phase promises an additional $11 billion in subsidies.

This is in addition to any revenue carriers might grow from accelerating work-from-home opportunities in states like Montana or Idaho. A $1 trillion infrastructure bill in flight would allocate billions of dollars more.

Companies with a first-mover advantage in these new markets will gain a long-term competitive edge in this area, Edmond suggested.

“Primary providers defending their territories for the next three to five years will define the next 20 years of very profitable cash flow,” he said.

Manual processes stalk rural gap

U.S. broadband rates surpass those of every Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country, except Mexico. But these relatively higher costs don’t always translate to stronger network coverage. That’s because designing, building, maintaining, and selling broadband networks is challenging in general — and even more so in rural areas.

Even established broadband leaders like Charter Fiberlink and Time Warner Cable have struggled to estimate the costs and benefits of these networks. Both companies were among bidders that recently defaulted on agreements to pave rural superhighways backed by tens of tens of millions in subsidies.

The broadband industry still uses manual processes for various aspects of selling and provisioning, which is a major issue in cities where cable companies tell users it will take a day to get service, but it ends up taking a week. It’s a larger issue in rural areas, where companies and their sales partners often sell services they cannot provide because the infrastructure has not yet been built.

Broadband providers must also contend with right-of-way considerations, such as railroad crossings and bridges that increase cost and timelines. On top of that, maintenance costs can spiral out of control in rural locations. For example, if a technician must drive two hours to get to a destination, a missing part or tool can cause substantial delays and additional costs.

Connecting a richer context

Connected2Fiber is betting it can mitigate these challenges using a digital twin of broadband infrastructure. A digital twin can meld process data to help service providers and their partners increase sales rates, improve profit margins, reduce build times, and more effectively deploy capital. Connected2Fiber’s “Connected World” platform curates data into a digital twin that reflects a broadband provider’s technical networks and sales opportunities

Edmond argues that a digital twin provides a richer context that could allow nimble startups to outmaneuver legacy broadband providers that rely on various manual processes and obsolete intelligence.

Sales teams are using digital twins to prioritize the prospecting process, he said. Managers can decide where to allocate the sales team’s efforts with greater precision, leading to higher productivity, better win rates, and better margins.

Digital twins could also help smaller providers organize and present the pertinent details for new government grants. This also allows such firms to identify and prioritize bids on opportunities with the highest reward-to-cost ratio.

Edmond believes infrastructure digital twins could fill a currently unmet middle ground not covered by existing enterprise applications, like CRM. For example, a digital twin could enhance the CRM with richer insight into the demand potential of current or new customers, the ability to service a location, and the competition for a customer’s business.

Combining such process data in effect creates a digital orchestration of a service provider’s needs, Edmond said.

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