Buildings and Places, Deep Dive, ESG, Technology

Our Deep Dive series features our technical experts who give you an inside look at how we are solving complex infrastructure challenges for our clients from across the world.

This week, we are highlighting our Global Broadband Practice leader from our Buildings + Places Technology Solutions Group (TSG) and how he and his team used their skills to plan and recommend fiber-optic connectivity to unserved and underserved facilities, devices, homes and businesses across the entire state of Maine.

Eric and his team provide broadband solutions to a wide range of clients—electric cooperatives, local, county, and state agencies, global Tier 1 internet service providers, and emerging technology companies—all with different goals and aims. Whether he’s working with a community to expand broadband services or an electric cooperative to implement a smart grid initiative, his approach is collaborative and often cross-jurisdictional.

He and his team have helped design and architect connectivity for a smart corridor (“The Smartest Street in America”) for San Mateo County, California, which features air quality sensors and technologies to improve traffic, and pedestrian and bicycle safety; and a 2500-mile fiber-to-the-home network in Indiana and Cambria counties in Pennsylvania that is planned to serve 25,000 unserved and underserved homes together with a smart grid initiative for the area’s electric cooperative. In line with our Sustainable Legacies strategy, common themes in Eric’s projects are sustainability, resilience and improving social outcomes.

Tell us about Maine DOT’s fiber expansion strategy project and what led to it becoming a collaborative, statewide initiative?

I enjoy working on projects that involve a statewide footprint. Much of my background is in the public realm, so I also have a soft spot in my heart for projects that solve complex challenges for multiple public sector agencies at once.

On the Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT) project, we helped two state entities with different missions join forces to make high speed connectivity accessible to the DOT and universally available for unserved and underserved residences and businesses in Maine.

This project started with a transportation corridor and evolved into a statewide initiative. MaineDOT was interested in expanding its intelligent transportation system (ITS) devices, so it needed to evaluate the feasibility of designing and installing its own fiber infrastructure.

A couple of examples of ITS technologies are traffic cameras, remote sensors and message boards to enhance infrastructure resiliency and expand Internet of Things (IoT) infrastructure for smart traffic management. Since the DOT has historically used third-party data communication connectivity or wireless technologies to connect to the ITS devices and its own facilities, this is a first-of-its-kind project for them.

MaineDOT covers and is responsible for a large corridor footprint across the state and owns the public right-of-way, making it an ideal partner for the Maine Connectivity Authority (MCA), who is planning for large-scale broadband rollouts. With a mission to “advance digital equity for all Mainers,” one of the MCA’s biggest challenges is finding the ideal corridors that traverse close enough to people living and working in rural parts of the state.

The MaineDOT-MCA working partnership provides an opportunity for the two organizations to blend their missions and integrate their resources and approaches to optimize public funds. They’ve collaborated with several other public sector agencies and private sector service providers throughout the life of the project. Through community engagement, they’ve been able to effectively plan and design for a statewide fiber expansion.

Since the two entities own little to no existing fiber, we walked them through the challenges, and pros and cons related to owning their own fiber-optic infrastructure. Then, we focused on how and where to expand broadband access to help set both entities up for success and align with the guidelines of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and its goal to ensure every American has access to reliable high-speed internet. MCA is now in the beginning stages of its plan to expand fiber-optic communications out to people and communities that face greater barriers to connectivity.

What was a key challenge you faced while working on this project? How did you solve it?

The key challenge was breaking down and quantifying where and how DOT and MCA should build this new infrastructure within Maine. We created a corridor prioritization tool to identify and visualize “Goldilocks corridors.” Goldilocks corridors are found within local and regional broadband zones that demonstrate the strongest need and highlight the biggest gaps in broadband service and availability. They also contain ideal site candidates in terms of federal funding and fiber optic connectivity.

The Goldilocks zones match and conform as the top Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program and agency prospects to serve existing or future transportation device locations, community anchor institutions (CAIs), and unserved and underserved households and businesses.

Pairing up the communities’ needs and the Goldilocks corridors for expanding broadband access to rural unserved households and businesses can improve the quality of life for citizens and foster economic development in towns and neighborhoods.

Using this concept and tool, we’ve helped MaineDOT and MCA find the “sweet spots,” and illustrate where available funding can serve the largest number of eligible devices, end users and CAIs along or next to those key corridors. CAIs play a crucial role in closing the “digital divide,” by expanding both broadband access and adoption in communities.

IoT connectivity provides smart traffic management, improves safety, mitigates sustainability challenges and enables more efficient resource management. Expanded fiber will also be key to future technologies such as Connected Autonomous Vehicles (CAV) and electric vehicle charging stations of the future.

We also created a cost-benefit tool to assess public and private investments in connecting sites along these corridors. Using this cost-benefit tool we’ve been able to help DOT and MCA justify the dollars invested, quantify the investment, and understand the potential grant match percentages needed to execute a future project as well as understand the value of their right-of-way.

How has this experience shaped your approach to future work?

“Dig once” is what the industry calls using a single infrastructure project to satisfy many different infrastructure initiatives. A key takeaway of this project was our recommendation to Maine to form a statewide Broadband Working Group (BWG). The BWG can help facilitate partnerships with other agencies and find shared needs when it comes to planning broadband expansion across Goldilocks zones to help enable access to broadband services at the lowest possible shared cost.

A thoughtfully planned transportation project can coalesce agencies, facilitate partnerships, put into practice a “dig once” policy and drive broadband deployment in unserved and hard to reach areas of a state. Also, using digital tools to find the Goldilocks corridors and zones proved to be a fantastic way to crystallize an idea for expansion into a concrete and practical picture that clients can understand, quantify, promote and gain the most consensus for shared broadband adoption.

Eric Bathras

Originally published May 11, 2023

Author: Eric Bathras

Eric is our Global Broadband Practice leader from our Buildings + Places Technology Solutions Group.