How RST Global is Building an Underground Fiber Network at Half the Cost


Fiber network are costly, in part because digging trenches to lay the conduit are so expensive. Stringing fiber along telephone poles is cheaper, but has its own issues. A new company claims its drill digs a fiber trench for the cost of an aerial deployment.

Fiber-to-the-home has come to Shelby, North Carolina, in the form of a new network from RST Global Communications. The network already passes 20,000 homes and was built underground for half of what a traditional underground fiber network would cost, according to the founder of RST. The secret is using an older deployment technology outfitted with today’s cheap consumer electronics to drill 10 feet underground with minimal human labor — cutting the cost of deploying fiber.

RST Global (it’s short for Really Scalable Technologies), which was formed in 2009 by a former cable network engineer and two other backers, has big plans for bringing better broadband to the people of North and South Carolina. Dan Limerick, CEO of RST Global, told me that the goal is to bring fiber to the home for residential customers, starting at prices of less than $60 for a symmetrical 50 Mbps connection and going up depending on the speeds. It will offer multigigabit connections to businesses and the many data center customers that are located in the Carolinas. Wipro is already a RTG customer, hooking one of its data centers to the network. New data centers built by Google, Facebook and Apple are only 30 miles away, and RST plans to go there as well.

RTG may never reach its goal of reaching all 14.3 million people in both states, but it has gotten started thanks to an undisclosed, “multimillion-dollar” investment from the three founders. The company says it has designed a network, a deployment model and is using a new twist on old ways of drilling to install cable to reduce the cost of deploying fiber to the home.

Old tech with new, cheaper functionality.

Randy Revels, the CTO of RST, explains that the network uses GPON technology like Verizon does in its fiber network, but that it isn’t spliced in as many places like the FIOS network is. In the Verizon network, fiber is spliced together multiple times between the Internet exchange point and the customer’s home. In the RST network, a continuous fused fiber network connected back to the Internet backbone is laid along the routes. When a customer calls and wants to be added to the network, a technician comes out, digs the trenches to the home or business and connect the building to the main fiber line. That means there are fewer connectors and splices in the fiber, which means less gear.

A customer may have to wait two weeks after calling before they get hooked into the network, but this way RST, like Google, only incurs the expense of building out a home when someone is ready to subscribe to the service. For a traditional telco network, the deployment goal was to pass all of the homes in one-go and then install the last few feet and gear when the customer called, but at the back end the network had to be provisioned for all the customers to sign up. That decision has influenced the network design and cost, resulting in more gear costs up front.

But the biggest reduction in cost is new technology put to use on drills used to run the fiber underground. Using a chip and camera inside the drill head, an operator can maneuver the drill underground to avoid obstacles. Because that tech has improved so much and is cheaper, RST has chosen to dig the entire network that way, bypassing aerial fiber strung from telephone poles. This adds security and makes it less repair-prone, but it also helps RST avoid deals with potential competitors and municipalities in order to get on the telephone poles. Even Google’s fiber network in Kansas City hit a bit of a snag when it came to getting its fiber on poles.

Fiber is the future, for real.

Limerick says the cost of homes passed for RST is much less than $1,500 per home averaged across both rural and urban areas, which is about half of what some analysts think Google spent and in line with what analysts estimated that Verizon spent. But that’s still $30 million when you multiply it by the 20,000 homes the network reaches. But Limerick and his co-founders Revels and Doug Brown, are convinced the Carolinas need it.

“Imagine if you have full-blown uncompressed HD TV on three screens, and have home monitoring cameras, and home automation data and smart grid and everything else. Telemedicine and robotic surgery that can already be done today and when you add that up you can’t get it through a cable modem. You need fiber,” Revels said.

Thus, he and his partners are taking their money and putting it 10 feet underground, building out an all-fiber network that stretches from the last mile to the middle mile and meets the places where the internet backbone begins. “This has to be built in the U.S. sooner or later and we are starting with this footprint so we can show a test model so people can see how versatile and all encompassing this is compared to networks today,” Limerick said.