One of the biggest hurdles with closing the digital divide is cost: it’s really expensive to dig trenches and run fiber optic cable out to the far, rural reaches of the country. So a new startup has patented an idea they hope will bring down costs significantly, and help bridge the gap: glueing fiber to the blacktop.
“My dad lives out in a rural part of Virginia and he was having trouble getting good internet connectivity, so that was the impetus of the whole idea,” Daniel Turner, the startup’s founder and CEO, told me over the phone. “I looked at what infrastructure is already connecting all of us together and it hit me, it’s the roads.”
Turner’s DC-based startup TRAXyL, first reported on by the blog Government Technology, has patented a technique that uses a blend of resins to stick fiber optic cables along roadways and protect them from weather and traffic. Inspired by his sister, who is a pediatric dentist, Turner adopted the same kind of UV-cured resin used for teeth fillings, and combined it with methyl methacrylate, an ultra tough resin developed in Europe as an alternative to paint to use for road markings.
By removing the need to dig, or get access to telephone poles, Turner believes he can greatly reduce the cost of installing fiber to the premises infrastructure in hard-to-reach places. The cost estimates for laying fiber varies depending on the region and terrain, but it can cost as much as $100 per foot. Turner thinks with scale, his technique can cost as little as $5 per foot to install.
TRAXyL currently has six pilot projects in three different states to test out the durability and reliability of this kind of network. One pilot, in Stillwater, Oklahoma, has been up and running for almost a year. The city installed a gigabit fiber network across a parking lot to hook up the city’s traffic control system, and it’s giving the technology a true ground test.
“They’re driving heavy machinery on top of it,” Turner told me. “They’ve been driving trucks over it, forklifts, heavy machinery and so they’re really getting good use out of it right now.”
But an exposed fiber cable on the blacktop, even if it’s protected by a thick layer of resin, is a liability. It certainly won’t last as long as buried cables, creates a greater risk of outages, and is limited: it can’t go over railroad crossings, for example. Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative, told me that while he thinks there’s some potential for this technology, it’s far from a panacea.
“I have no doubt that in the first several years this technology works great, I’m concerned about how it fares after five years,” Mitchell said.
He told me he could see this technique being useful for establishing a network quickly and affordably, but using it as a temporary stopgap while building a larger, buried network.
Turner told me he wants the technology to be a complement to existing infrastructure techniques, rather than a replacement. Using it to connect multiple wireless towers, for example, rather than to connect every home that those towers serve.
Mitchell said any technology that helps make building infrastructure more affordable is useful, but at the end of the day, rural internet will only be built if and when ISPs or, more likely, local governments decide to invest in it.
“What would help solve the digital divide is if governments got serious about wanting to solve the digital divide,” he said. “Technologies that lower the cost of doing it will help, but fundamentally there is so little real emphasis on doing it today that it will not make that big of a difference.”
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