Pittsburgh report on broadband deployment technology, costs, planning and implementation in both urban and rural settings.

Digital Rivers Final Report
Executive Summary

Pittsburgh’s position in the New Economy will depend on universal access to an affordable, high-speed digital broadband network that is available to every person and business in the region. Like roadways, sanitary sewers, water lines, and telephone networks supported and influenced our progress in the past, telecommunication infrastructure and universal access to the Internet will greatly influence our region’s development in the 21st Century. Digital Rivers is the infrastructure of the future – and the future is now.

Digital Rivers is a comprehensive research initiative of 3 Rivers Connect (3rc) and Carnegie Mellon University, which outlines the challenges and opportunities for universal broadband deployment in the Pittsburgh Region. The Digital Rivers project team investigated the technological, economic, and policy issues influencing deployment of broadband infrastructure in our region.

Technology is not the problem.

The team discovered that broadband access technologies are available today to deliver the necessary bandwidth, but telecommunications companies are unable or unwilling to build the necessary network infrastructure universally. Analysis of business decisions reveals that the expense and risk of capital investment is far too great to serve areas with perceived moderate or low consumer demand.

Digital Rivers provides a comprehensive investigation of broadband demand across the Commonwealth down to the business location level. Online at, the resulting Geographic Information System (GIS) is capable of spatial analysis of demographic information, broadband supply, and the location of businesses considered early adopters of broadband technologies and businesses experiencing unfulfilled broadband demand. This research suggests that broadband deployment patterns are independent of affluence, a common misperception in discussions of the Digital Divide. Rather, significant service gaps exist where broadband alternatives are simply not available. This is characteristic of both small business locations as well as residential markets. In fact, many areas experiencing recent development do not have access to affordable broadband despite being major employment centers in aggregate.

There are significant impediments to deployment.

Contributing to the challenge of unmet demand, the risk to service providers of building the network is further complicated by widely varying local government regulations and management practices of public right of ways making it extremely difficult to penetrate new market areas. Finally, federal regulations hinder universal access by requiring that incumbent providers share their network infrastructure with competitive service providers. Unless local politics change
drastically – along with a turnaround in the current economics and regulatory climate – a large-scale private deployment of high-speed broadband capacity throughout the Pittsburgh Region is unlikely to occur without help from the public sector.

Other regions have already tackled the problem.

To resolve these challenges, Digital Rivers explores how other cities in the US and Europe are providing broadband access throughout their communities. In addition, the team performed an economic analysis of the pinnacle of Internet access, fiber optic to the threshold of every home and business, in addition to promising new wireless technologies over different population densities to determine which technologies are best suited to the Pittsburgh Region.

From a public policy perspective, Digital Rivers explores four potential methods for bringing affordable broadband service to everyone in the region. These methods include: doing nothing; aggregating demand; forming a purchasing cooperative, and; creating a government-led build out of broadband infrastructure.

This report addresses the pros and cons of each method in terms of the amount of public funding necessary, the ease of execution, the time frame for implementation, the amount of bandwidth to be delivered, and the level of competition each method fosters.

Universal access requires a combination of technology architectures.

It is clear that a single technology is unlikely to satisfy demand for the entire Pittsburgh region due to geographic constraints and sparse population in some rural areas. Findings indicate that universal and affordable broadband access could be possible utilizing new Fiber to the Home (FTTH) technology, where a quasi-public entity builds and neutrally owns the fiber infrastructure. Because this technology is relatively new and expensive, and demand for fiber optic speeds at every location is uncertain FTTH is considered a longer-term goal but one that provides an objective to pursue while planning for incremental network expansions using existing transport methods like cable and copper (DSL).

Wireless networking, in contrast, overcomes many land-based political and physical challenges and may be better suited to areas where the population density is not sufficient to justify the expense of a fiber-optic infrastructure. Wireless broadband may also be used in smaller but densely populated market areas to greatly reduce upfront capital expenditures and lower the financial risk of questionable demand. To test that theory, Digital Rivers describes how a broadband deployment might be performed in a typical community of the region, the Borough of Homestead. This pilot project, if implemented, may become a model for similar communities throughout the region.

Successful implementation requires a focused and comprehensive effort.

In conclusion, only a focused and comprehensive effort, similar in commitment to our region’s one, five, and 20 year comprehensive planning process, will help realize universal broadband access in the Pittsburgh region. A new organization consisting of public and private stakeholders should be formed to develop a metropolitan area network design, level of service standards, right-of-way standards, funding strategies, and public policy strategies. To be truly effective, this organization should have the authority to assume debt in order to build, manage, and lease telecommunications infrastructure to competing telecommunications service providers. This organizational structure and its neutral network architecture will foster competition and offers the best potential for universal access in our region in a time frame that will establish Pittsburgh as a technological leader.

View the entire Digital Rivers report

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