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Fibre optics, energy providers and infrastructures
A review and contextualisation of the broadband strategy of Burgenland (27.08.2023)
Förderjahr / Stipendien Call #17 / ProjektID: 6403 / Projekt: Fibre alongside the Power Lines

Of all the research done on telecommunications, mine is a little unusual – it’s steeped in the social sciences, a qualitative case study focusing on a document and what that document does to broadband deployment.(1) I’ve previously talked about the limitations to my research, and it is important to take them seriously, especially that case studies do not lend easily to generalisation. Yet there are several ways in which my research connects to that conducted by others. In this blog post, I want to take up some of those threads and re-embed the case of the broadband strategy of Burgenland into the wider field of research on telecommunications networks. 

Why fibre optics networks? 

Much of research on how and why telecommunications networks are deployed focuses on telecommunications providers, which are probably overall the most active. As for the areas where telecommunications providers are not as keenly interested in deploying networks, alternatives have to arise – for instance, community networks or municipal networks. My research is focused on one of these alternatives, namely utility and more specifically, energy providers. 

So what does the research on utility providers tell us? On the one hand, it seems like energy providers like to deploy fibre optics networks when they do engage in telecommunications network deployment. Paolo Gerli, Marlies Van der Wee, Sofie Verbrugge and Jason Whalley (2018) offer a comparative review of several case studies of utilities (i.e. companies which provide water, electricity, energy, waste or other public services) deploying broadband networks. These authors found that whether these projects deploy fibre optics networks or not seems to depend to some extent on whether public actors are involved. That is, if a utility provider engages in broadband deployment and there is some form of cooperation between that utility provider and a local or regional administration, it is very likely that fibre optics networks will be built. They suggest that one of the reasons why fibre optics networks are attractive for this combination of actors are the long payback periods which are possible for investments in fibre optics networks. 

On the one hand, I was able to observe that the long payback periods do indeed seem to be one factor why an energy provider with a public mission would prefer fibre optics over other types of broadband networks. However, my research also indicates that energy providers view fibre optics networks as a particularly stable, secure, and long-lasting type of telecommunications network. In addition, fibre optics networks are also preferred because the public mission of closing the digital divide and improving rural connectivity – which is a concern to the public actors who are involved in these types of deployment – has a long-term nature, both in the sense of long development times and of achieving long-lasting solutions. 

How do the energy and fibre optics network move together? 

Costas Troulos and Vasilis Maglaris (2011) make another observation related to energy providers which I would like to pick up. They describe how energy providers deploy fibre optics networks alongside the energy transmission lines as part of backhaul networks (head over here for a refresher on backhaul and access networks). Troulos and Maglaris do not comment further on this phenomenon, but the case studies of Gerli, Van der Wee, Verbrugge and Whalley (2018) show that many utilities follow the pattern of their existing networks (of other types) when they build fibre optics networks. For the social sciences, this shows how strongly infrastructures tend to follow an installed base (Susan Leigh Star and Karen Ruhleder in Star, 1999) – that is, infrastructures usually build on other infrastructures that have come before them. In telecommunications, this sometimes seems to be the case quite literally, as we can see when energy providers replicate their networks with fibre optics networks. One notable exception seems to be an Italian case study described by Gerli, Van der Wee, Verbrugge and Whalley (2018): in this case, the subsidiary focused on fibre optics deployment does not follow the footprint of the energy provider, even deploying networks in different cities. For this reason alone, I think we need a better understanding of how one infrastructure may follow another – because this tells us a lot about the scale and scope this infrastructure may obtain. 

Now, in the case I have looked into, backhaul networks are an important field of activity: the broadband strategy of Burgenland clearly prioritises backhaul network deployment. But the broadband strategy also says that BE Technology should co-deploy fibre optics networks wherever civil works are necessary on the side of the energy network – and that access networks can also be built if the conditions for obtaining public funding are met. This means that fibre optics cables can be deployed at several layers of a telecommunications network and where fibre optics cables are deployed depends firstly on the broadband strategy, and later on the electricity network or public funding.  

We need to think these aims together with what we know about infrastructures and their installed base. What is the footprint of an energy provider? Where do the cables – physical, material cables – that make up its network extend? Within a given region – at the scale of Burgenland –, the electricity network extends everywhere: its scope of cables encompasses every premise in Burgenland. The installed base of an energy network is quite a good one to choose if your aim is to connect even those who are at the periphery of rural settlements, i.e. those whom the broadband strategy aims to connect.  

Looking from the vantage point of the installed base available to an energy provider, fibre optics deployment becomes an exercise of finding the right moment in time to add fibre optics cables on top of the electric cables it already owns. And these right moments in time are multiplying: the increase of renewable energy sources is prompting changes to the electricity network at vast scales. Preparing the electricity network to handle vast, intermittent influx of energy from renewable sources is a large-scale, long-term process which the broadband strategy of Burgenland wants to harness in order to close the digital divide. This attention to how infrastructures materially go together, to how the installed base affects how the telecommunications network comes into being, is core to my thesis and has thus far received little attention elsewhere.  

What does a broadband strategy do? 

Of course, there is also the question of what kind of initiative a broadband strategy actually is. It is clearly not a citizen’s initiative, unlike the initiatives investigated by Koen Salemink and Dirk Strijker (2016). They looked into citizen’s initiatives for improved broadband connectivity in the Dutch provinces of Denthe and Groningen and how the provincial administrations dealt with these. People in rural areas experienced their quality of connectivity as lacking and telecommunications providers did not seem likely to heed their demands. This dissatisfaction culminated in the development of citizen’s initiatives, which then struggled to organise themselves in a manner which could be handled by the provincial administration and obtain funding (Denthe) or were dropped in favour of market-oriented policies (Groningen). 

The dissatisfaction experienced by people living in certain parts of Burgenland – or, more accurately, at the outskirts of rural villages in certain parts of Burgenland – has similarly reached a level of concern. But the concern expressed in the broadband strategy is a different concern: lack of broadband is framed there as a state-level problem. In this sense, the broadband strategy is much closer to the state-led deployment initiatives discussed by Paolo Gerli and Jason Whalley (2021) or other authors. 

And this, I think, is an extremely interesting. The broadband strategy of Burgenland works because it makes use of a legal framework for energy infrastructure which, every now and then, triggers changes to the network that necessitate civil works. This same legal framework makes it possible to create energy communities: collectives which set up and manage the energy generated from renewable sources. And yet, the broadband strategy does not make the choice to exploit this kind of opportunity for deploying fibre optics networks. Instead, we can see how certain elements of the regulatory framework are activated in a selective manner, drawing on specific actors (in this case BE Technology) and leaving others aside. Either way, this finding underlines the call made by Gerli, Van der Wee, Verbrugge and Whalley (2018) to pay close attention to the ways in which regulatory frameworks for energy infrastructure impact the development of telecommunications networks, which I have tried to pick up with my research. 

Behind the scenes: a short note on writing 

There is plenty left to say on fibre optics networks, both in the scope of my thesis and far beyond. But I would like to end here with a reflection on my own work. What I have attempted in this blog post is an ethical literature discussion, or a literature review from the position of research-once-completed. Max Liboiron (2020) invites us to meditate on this issue and explore what ethical writing means. 

In my case, I try to let literatures of different worlds – of the field of research on telecommunications and of STS – speak with each other. It took a long time for me to read these separate strands of inquiry together and I still find it difficult to speak in both worlds: a big thank you to everyone at universities who helped me work through these difficulties by letting me know when my translations between these worlds were incomplete.  

But ethical writing also means to write in ways that allow non-academic audiences in, and this is what I have tried to pursue in the course of this blog series. I have tried to write for everyone who has not read my thesis and is not inclined to do so either. In an incomplete manner, I have taken up themes that are central in my view to understanding where my research comes from, how I relate it to a series of concerns in the academic field, and how it relates to the context of our everyday experiences. I hope I managed to let you in.

 

1 My master’s thesis is in the field of Science-Technology-Society Studies at the University of Vienna. I also work for the Austrian telecommunications regulator (RTR). Although the topic of my thesis falls into the field of telecommunications, this study is my own academic work and is not connected to the regulatory activities of RTR or TKK; in particular, the views expressed here are my own and do not prejudge the decisions taken by these regulatory bodies.

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