In May, the FCC announced the release of its latest broadband map, utilizing new legal and technical tools to vastly improve accuracy and identify over 330k additional unserved locations. Today, the FCC estimates that there are still 8.3 million U.S. homes and businesses that still lack access to high-speed broadband.
There has been much progress over the last couple of years in narrowing the broadband gap. $20B in Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) money has begun trickling down to auction winners. State allocations of an additional $42.5B in Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) funding have recently been announced. The Fiber Broadband Association reported the highest-ever fiber-to-the-home construction in 2022, with 7.9 million new homes passed, many of which were previously unserved. Broadband buildouts have included telecommunications companies, cable operators, municipalities, wireless ISPs (WISPS), and electric cooperatives working to connect nearly every household in the country. Over time, more than $100B will be poured into extending broadband access and digital capabilities to unserved/underserved areas in the U.S., enacted by thousands of regional ISPs and tier 1 telcos.
This unprecedented funding makes possible the extension of physical access, but it is only the first step for ISPs to create a sustainable business long-term. Once this access is built with a large portion of that capital cost covered, internet service providers (ISPs) must still cover ongoing operational costs and meet the rising expectations of existing subscribers while enticing new ones.
Closing the broadband security gap is equally important to their business sustainability.
Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, cyber threats, and ransomware attacks continue to grow. Core network security, resilience, and other core network requirements need to be addressed to ensure that regional ISPs support more subscriber and traffic growth with improved security.
These new broadband communities are not just catching up to more developed urban areas. They have the potential to leap ahead with a faster, more secure, and more resilient network. With the right technology, the regional ISPs that serve them have an opportunity to help in that journey and develop a sustainable business for themselves in the process.
Addressing the Security Gap and Providing High-value Services
For ISPs deploying networks now, the environment they are operating in has drastically changed. Consumer and business subscribers have much higher expectations for speed, availability, and security. In particular, cyber-threat activity has significantly increased. This all means that it’s even more important to make the right design, security, and technical decisions in the core network and data center infrastructure.
Building a sustainable business requires ensuring a better subscriber experience – not only better than the tier 1 counterparts but better than the growing number of new entrants, overbuilders, and hyperscalers competing for subscribers. While high speed and low price are still important, they are no longer sufficient differentiators to retain subscribers. Increasingly, subscribers will be asking, "Do you have the safest network?" “Will your network be available when I really need it?” And rural communities are especially vulnerable to cyber threats: for the same reason there is underinvestment in broadband, there is likely to be underinvestment in cyber defenses, as well.
A good subscriber experience requires high speed, low latency, and reliability. Network and service availability are critically impacted by cyberattacks. DDoS attacks have increased significantly over the last few years, with some predicting a 170 percent increase by the end of this year. ISPs are some of the most targeted organizations for DDoS attacks, and often, they target downstream business customers.
A New Approach is Needed to Close the Broadband Security Gap
Historically, standard practice for service providers has been to protect their own infrastructure and the large volume of subscribers it supports, even if it means blocking the traffic going to the target downstream customer. Blackholing traffic is very binary. It blocks both good and bad traffic, and it achieves the criminals’ objectives: it puts the customer out of service. More granular, intelligent protection is needed. To be competitive, ISPs need to evaluate the adequacy of their own DDoS protection and consider offering a higher level of protection for downstream customers as a differentiator.
IPv4 address pools are also a frequent target of DDoS attacks. Often, these attacks are initiated by gamers to target an opponent. As regional ISPs seek to grow subscribers, they will undoubtedly face the combined challenge of running out of IPv4 addresses and facing attacks on their existing address pools. Deploying a carrier-grade network address translation (CGNAT) technology can address IPv4 exhaustion and also provide DDoS protection. This can mean the difference between a good subscriber experience that builds a sustainable business—or not.
As an industry, tier 1 service providers often historically fail to invest sufficiently in security infrastructure, unlike more security-savvy enterprises. There are several domains of protection needed in all service providers: the customer-facing network, internal IT infrastructure, and network operations (OSS/BSS). While regional ISPs have fewer resources to address security, they can seize this opportunity and outpace their larger competitors – to not only fortify security that ensures a good subscriber experience but also to monetize security investments to deliver value-added services. Security can become a competitive differentiator.
Making security investments a higher priority in core network planning will help develop the necessary capabilities to bridge the broadband security gap and withstand ever-changing cybersecurity threats.
Terry Young is Director, Service Provider Marketing at A10 Networks.