Office of Operations
21st Century Operations Using 21st Century Technologies

Rural Interstate Corridor Communications Study
Report to States

1.0 Introduction

This document is the second of two reports that explore the potential for the use of rural Interstate Highway corridor rights-of-way for the deployment of fiber optic cable and/or wireless communication infrastructure, across multiple States linked by the Interstate Highway system. The first document, the Rural Interstate Corridor Communications Study: Report to Congress, was submitted to Congress on August 18, 2008. This document, the Report to States, provides a summary of study resources available to the Corridor States to begin the process for possible deployment of high-speed telecommunications (HST) in the corridors in question. The primary goal of these deployments would be to benefit rural communities. This telecommunications infrastructure, as envisioned in Section 5507 of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), would comprise one element of the nation's "telecommunications backbone" system, the "main arteries" of the nation’s advanced telecommunications network.

Creation of such a communications infrastructure could potentially have immediate benefits to the transportation agencies that control the Interstate Highway rights-of-way (ROW) that would be utilized. Furthermore, the introduction of high-speed telecommunications can demonstrably improve economic prospects for businesses, individuals, and communities, while also providing a variety of collateral benefits for health care, education, and public safety. However, while construction of a backbone facility could ultimately support the provision of advanced telecommunications services to adjacent communities, the delivery of service to customers is also dependent on the availability of regional and local distribution networks as well as local Internet service providers that would connect the backbone infrastructure to the end user.

The Report to Congress provided the Secretary of Transportation's perspective on the feasibility of deploying high-speed telecommunications in the three study corridors. The Report to States provides the more detailed preliminary backbone alignment and installation issues for potential high-speed telecommunications in the three identified corridors.

1.1 Corridor Conditions

The project team worked closely with the ten States identified in Section 5507 to determine existing deployments of high-speed telecommunication infrastructure along with potential needs and challenges associated with such implementations, both existing and future. Initial webconferences followed by in-person workshops were held for each corridor, and information was presented on the study objectives and defined corridor profiles. These workshops provided an opportunity for the corridor States to discuss the potential for multi-state deployments of HST in the participating States. After this general information sharing and workshop discussions, detailed information requests were issued to each of the ten States. These information requests allowed the project team to gather specific State by State data on technology and communications along the corridors.

The study team developed a library of research for all areas of the study (demographics, economics, education, health systems, etc) as well as DOT-specific material such as existing intelligent transportation systems (ITS) deployments and future plans for communications. A project website was developed for the information to be posted and shared among stakeholders. It was decided that the project website would be password-protected so that e-mail addresses and other information contained on the site would not be subjected to phishing or hacking. At the completion of this project it is envisioned that the website will remain active and available to stakeholders while hosted on the FHWA server.

Through the work of this study each corridor has access to the in-depth research on the demographic, economic, health, education, legal, and technological characteristics of the defined corridor. Each corridor has unique conditions that impact the development of HST along with similarities that can benefit neighboring States. Corridor stakeholder participation was a valuable asset to the study process. Below are capsule descriptions of the three corridors, with the elements that make the corridors unique as well as the similarities, along with potential action items to advance HST.

Interstate Highway 90 through South Dakota, southern Minnesota, northern Iowa, and central and western Wisconsin

The I-90 corridor is considered to be the most rural of the three corridors in the study. Along I-90 the population densities were lower, with far greater distances than the I-20 and I-91 corridors. South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin all had some level of HST and ITS deployments in the State DOT Interstate highway right-of-way. There were limited to no deployments of HST on the I-90 Corridor.

The legal research (A white paper, "Legislative and Regulatory Background Regarding Advanced Telecommunications Infrastructure for Rural Areas Along Interstate Corridors," is available from FHWA) focused in on the lessons learned by Minnesota when the State DOT initially deployed HST through a resource sharing agreement in the early 1990s. Outside of the legal constraints of the associated rulings from Minnesota, limited legal roadblocks exist for the State DOTs on the I-90 corridor. The I-90 corridor is well positioned to work with the private sector through public-private partnerships and resource sharing agreements for future deployments of HST. The right-of-way is generally wide and unobstructed, with minimal urban areas to traverse and limited geological concerns. South Dakota is probably in the best position to work with a partner in deploying due to the absence of HST and constructability of SD right-of-way.

This study provided the I-90 corridor States with the tools and information necessary to approach and work with potential private sector parties. South Dakota brought the private sector telecommunication providers to corridor meetings, and the State and private sector representatives have begun discussions on what the parties can accomplish together.

Many of the stakeholders commented that funding challenges, as well as the lack of feasibility studies and documentation of the need for HST along the corridor, limited deployment of fiber optic or other infrastructure. The next steps for the I-90 corridor include:

  • The States should consider whether to harmonize their utility accommodation policies and permitting processes to facilitate installation of high-speed telecommunications facilities across State boundaries.
  • Considering the potential impact of major winter weather events, the States should explore how to improve winter maintenance response, including improved center-to-center communications. Such communications could be enhanced through the use of high-speed telecommunications links, which might also enable ITS applications such as improved fleet management, improved traveler information, and other services.

Interstate Highway 20 through northern Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama

The I-20 corridor is unique in that one of the study States, Louisiana, has operated for some time with private sector partners in resource sharing and right-of-way barter agreements. As such, the entire State is well-equipped with fiber routes and wireless tower access and ownership. The State's open model of granting access to the right-of-way for fiber conduit and routing projects has led to extensive availability of HST. In contrast, Louisiana's neighboring States of Mississippi and Alabama are quite constrained in undertaking similar ventures. Mississippi and Alabama strictly limit public-private partnerships (PPP); unless transportation agencies are specifically authorized to undertake a program of resource sharing or bartering the Interstate highway right-of-way, the law is interpreted in such a way that the DOT can not carry out such a program.

Mississippi and Alabama are both moving forward with their own deployments of fiber in and around a number of high priority areas such as the urban centers along the corridor. This allows full control of the telecommunications infrastructure, but is also very costly.

The experiences and lessons learned of Hurricane Katrina have shown the State DOTs in this region how corridor deployments of HST networks could greatly aid and assist in corridor interoperability, thereby facilitating evacuation and response to natural disasters. Other steps that States in the I-20 corridor should consider include:

  • State DOTs in the I-20 Corridor should consider the advantages of harmonizing utility accommodation policies and permitting processes for the Corridor.
  • Current legal and policy restrictions limit opportunities for public-private partnerships in the I-20 Corridor. State DOTs should take steps to lessen legal restrictions by documenting the benefits of working with the private sector to facilitate deployment of high-speed telecommunications in the corridor.

Interstate Highway 91 through Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire

The I-91 Corridor is the most mature corridor when it comes to advancing HST programs. There were stakeholders on this corridor that had already researched the needs of advanced communications to the residents of the States involved in the study. The State DOTs have also progressed with HST infrastructure projects involving the Interstate highway ROW. New Hampshire had deployed fiber optic infrastructure (at their own expense) along large sections of I-93, a nearby interstate leading to Boston. Massachusetts had worked to secure additional funding to move forward with the first phase of a design-build program to prompt interest in the corridor from the private sector, with Vermont following that same path to secure deployment of HST in the I-91 ROW.

The corridor presents unique challenges, with many difficult geological formations that could obstruct fiber optic installations and a history of environmental protectionism that would make tower siting and ROW disruptions subject to lengthy permitting processes. Other actions Corridor States might consider include:

  • I-91 Corridor States should consider sharing lessons learned and experiences as their programs move forward.
  • Given the advanced status of planning and implementation in this corridor, this study has focused on advancing some standard design templates that could be applied to promote efficiency in moving the projects forward. These design templates are listed in Appendix C.