Förderjahr 2022 / Stipendien Call #17 / ProjektID: 6403 / Projekt: Fibre alongside the Power Lines
Earlier on, the broadband atlas helped us explore what the Internet connection is like in some places in Southern Burgenland to give us a feeling for what the broadband strategy of Burgenland aims to do. This time, I would like to give you an idea of the actors involved in this project.(1)
But first, there is something we need to know about networks. Telecommunications networks not only exist in space, but span across places – just like many other types of networks. In this sense, they are geographic, which is why we can put them on a map like the broadband atlas.
Because they are geographically spread out, telecommunications networks are not the same everywhere: one part of the network, which is called the core or backbone network, connects large nodes with each other. These nodes, in turn, are connected to smaller points through backhaul networks. From these points onwards, an access network connects the users. As a rule, their capacities vary because the type of traffic and other network requirements are different.
The terms may (or may not) be new, but I am sure you are familiar with the principle. We experience it every day with transportation, like when you take the regional bus to an inter-city train, which takes you to the other end of the country. When you use infrastructures, they work in degrees of range or speed: a regional bus has a lot of stops, which is great because you can take it to a lot of places near you, but that also makes it slower. An inter-city train has very few stops, which is great because it takes you from one city to the next very quickly – but chances are you will not end up right where you want to be, and you may have to take another bus to your final destination.
Which brings us back to the topic of telecommunications. As we saw earlier, telecommunications networks are geographic, and so perhaps we could think of access networks as local, backhaul networks as regional, and core networks as national (which of course also need to connect to international networks!). If you therefore want to deploy fibre optics networks locally in underserved areas, as the broadband strategy of Burgenland aims to do, the big question is: what do you need to get a fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) network there?
Finding a way
Let us go back to Großmürbisch. If we want to have a fibre optics network in Großmürbisch, it is not enough to connect every house there with a fibre optics cable – in other words, to have a full-fibre access network. We also need to make sure that there is a fibre optics connection between Großmürbisch and Inzenhof or Strem (these seem to be the closest places with a fibre optics network). In other words, we also need a fibre optics backhaul network, which is currently not necessarily the case in rural areas.
What starts out as a problem of the digital divide quickly spirals into a problem of logistics. How do you get a network from one place to another? What is the fastest, the easiest or the cheapest way to do it – and are they necessarily the same? And when you connect one place to the next, where do you put the network – in the ground, perhaps, below or next to streets or railways? Or maybe rather together with water pipes?
There are quite a few answers to these questions – and interestingly, most of these answers build on other infrastructures, like the railways or streets which already connect one place to the next. Linking infrastructures in such a way to make it easier to deploy networks is called co-deployment. Usually, co-deployment refers to laying cables in the ground: the idea is that if civil works take place, for instance when water pipes need to be modernised, you can use this opportunity to lay fibre optics cables into the ground as well, thereby reducing the cost and number of civil works along a street.
In Burgenland, the solution for organising fibre optics deployment is co-deployment together with the energy network. As we already know from last time, one of the aims of the broadband strategy is to deploy FTTH networks in three underserved cadastral municipalities annually in coordination with electricity network expansion, starting from 2021 (Amt der Burgenländischen Landesregierung, 2021, p. 66). The deployment should, however, also encompass backhaul networks, thereby ensuring that there is a fibre optics point of presence in every municipality (Amt der Burgenländischen Landesregierung, 2021, p. 66-67). But how are fibre optics networks and energy networks connected?
Linking electricity and fibre optics
It might seem unusual at first, but energy providers have been involved in broadband deployment in a variety of ways (Gerli et al., 2018). Sometimes, they provide telecommunications services themselves, such as the energy and telecommunications provider Salzburg AG. Often, they provide access to their fibre optics (backhaul) networks, allowing telecommunications providers to use them for broadband.
One of the reasons why energy providers have their own fibre optics networks is that they need these networks to monitor and manage their own networks. Electricity networks, like other networks, connect a variety of sites – production sites, transformers, switchgear etc. – to each other, making their services available through their wires to households and companies alike. What flows through the grid in a variety of intensities is the same force which flows through the devices, requiring management in different degrees throughout the network (Harrison, 2018 in Shove & Trentman (Eds) 2018). As a quick side note: just like telecommunications networks consist of core, backhaul and access networks, electricity networks have specific parts suitable for high voltage, medium voltage and low voltage transmission.
Fibre optics networks allow energy providers to monitor all of these different parts of the grid reliably, which is why most energy providers have fibre optics networks integrated into their networks. They are also not completely new: fibre optics in (and for) electricity networks have been used at least since the 1980s (Lehpamer, 2016, pp. 23–24).
Overall, it seems to make sense that energy providers have their own fibre optics networks. But what about their involvement in deployment activities?
Indeed, energy providers across Austria are involved in initiatives for deploying fibre optics networks in rural areas in a variety of ways (Amt der Burgenländischen Landesregierung, 2021, p. 36). However, they are not usually the main addressees of broadband strategies. They are also not usually the focus of studies on telecommunications deployment (e.g. Curram et al., 2019), even though they do make appearances every now and then (Gerli et al., 2017; Gerli et al., 2018).
Focusing on the co-deployment of electricity and telecommunications is what makes the broadband strategy of Burgenland a little different from its peers, at least in Austria. It also explains why the broadband strategy tasks a newly-founded subsidiary of Burgenland Energie by the name of BE Technology with implementing the strategy, formerly Energie Burgenland Breitband GmbH (Amt der Burgenländischen Landesregierung, 2021, p. 67). The idea is simple: whenever the electricity network needs to be modified, fibre optics networks should be added as well – or, well, at least the ducts for these networks.
Going from the digital divide to energy networks, we saw this time how networks are spread across areas, how they have different 'layers', and what this means for deployment. We also took a fresh look at the aims of the broadband strategy of Burgenland to understand a little better why energy networks play a role, even though our focus is actually broadband. However, we have not addressed one question at all so far: what are fibre optics networks, and why are people talking about them so much?
My next blog post will be dedicated to precisely this question, and hopefully it will help us understand a little better why rural areas want to have these networks. Looking into this topic will give us a starting point for discussing the role of demand later on as well. Stay tuned!
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.