Broadband deployment in rural areas struggles to keep pace with today's demands for mobile, voice, data and video services. In the US, the Federal Communication Commission's most recent Broadband Progress Report states that 55 million Americans are still without access to superfast broadband. Governments in many countries provide funding to help connect underserved communities, and yet the global digital divide still exists between those living in hard to reach "not spots" and those who can access at least 25Mbit/s.
Rural broadband providers need a technology boost to help them expand their service offerings and continue delivering high-quality voice, video and data services to their customers. Network functions virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN) bring automation, agility, flexibility and scalability to the carrier-class networking world. The NFV and SDN movement is already underway for Tier 1 and 2 service providers but rural broadband providers stand to benefit from network virtualization to an even greater extent than their urban counterparts. For today's rural broadband applications, NFV is the best bet for service innovation, operational efficiency and competitive edge – all leading to greater and enduring profitability.
NFV allows providers to offer software-based solutions delivered on open hardware platforms to their end customers rather than relying on expensive hardware from a single vendor. With an open NFV solution, virtual network functions (VNFs) from different software vendors can be uploaded to low-cost servers in order to remotely spin-up a new service almost immediately ─ without a truck roll to deliver another dedicated appliance.
Rather than being burdened with large upfront investments for new custom hardware, which often requires third-party financing for many Tier 2 or 3 operators, providers can now subscribe to only the software functions they need, paying on a monthly basis based on the actual usage or instance enabled. This opens the door to continual and responsive innovation that leads directly to new revenue opportunities.
Lower upfront and operational costs and dynamic, agile service delivery give NFV pioneers the edge when competing with a Tier 1 provider in a neighboring city by offering better pricing on data and phone services. Or they can compete head-to-head with satellite and cable to deliver media and data services.
Virtualization creates new opportunities for rural providers to offer customers over-the-top (OTT) connectivity services that can be delivered on fibers they don't own or control. Many rural broadband providers are also looking for ways to join forces to provide value-added services such as cellular backhaul, emergency response, offsite backups, tailored billing, customer self-monitoring, self-service and self-provisioning. Virtualization makes partnering inherently easier.
Virtualization and automation support creative new ways to better serve rural end customers that lead to overhead savings and optimized utilization. Customers can now partner or share services customized by bandwidth or availability or even by season. For example, in an area with many ski resorts, far more broadband is required during the winter ski season, while only basic service is needed in the warmer months. Sharing that extra summer bandwidth with the local government to support other community activities can result in savings for customers and higher resource utilization for the broadband provider.
Rural broadband providers are a resourceful group and once they start virtualizing, it's a solid bet that they will innovate in ways we can't yet anticipate. The downside to all of this is that with any new technology paradigm, new skillsets and expertise are needed to support it. So, how do rural providers get NFV started?
Engineering firms like Mid-States Consultants and value-added resellers like Walker and Associates are gearing up to do the heavy lifting for Tier 2 and 3 providers deploying virtualization and new software-defined networking architectures. Consultants and resellers see this as an opportunity to transform their businesses and their relationships with their clients. They are hiring or retraining consultants to develop the right expertise to help providers in remote areas deploy NFV, manage their new software-driven environments and stay ahead of the innovation curve. When providers have questions or concerns, they will know or find the answers and solutions.
With any major technology transformation there are benefits to being a first-mover. The question for rural broadband providers is no longer, "Should we virtualize?" The question is how quickly can they start offering new services and crafting new partnerships? NFV is a great bet for remote success. It's time to get started.
— Stephan Rettenberger is Vice President of Marketing and Investor Relations at ADVA Optical Networking. Special to The New IP