How textiles and natural gas are fueling broadband innovation

Broadband is benefiting from what textile mills left behind, and what natural gas companies have discovered.
Written by Mari Silbey, Contributor

Infrastructure provides an underlying foundation for connectivity, whether you're talking about electricity, water, highways, or communications. So it follows that lessons learned and resources used in one area of infrastructure development should be applicable in others. RST Global Communications, a small, independent telecommunications company, is putting that idea into practice.

The RST story starts in Shelby, North Carolina, a town west of Charlotte in the southern part of the state; an area where textiles once dominated the local economy. While that industry has largely disappeared from the region, a new economic driver has sprung up in its place. Data centers are moving in to North Carolina and taking advantage of existing electrical and water infrastructure. In the last five years, several heavy hitters including Apple, Google and Facebook have all invested in data center projects in the area, and with Bed, Bath & Beyond announcing its own intentions for the region just last month, there's no sign that the data center momentum is slowing.

According to RST Global CEO Dan Limerick, the founders of the company saw the data center movement as an opportunity. Data centers need broadband, and RST was formed in 2009 with the goal to build on North Carolina's telecommunications infrastructure and on continued growing demand for connectivity. Today, RST serves multiple data center clients, and is pushing into new businesses including residential broadband services, smart grid support, and telemedicine.

But that's only part of the story.

RST aims to do more than just offer Internet access. It wants to provide networks that are high-performance and highly resilient. The company wants to deliver broadband from high-speed fiber networks deployed ten feet underground... which leads to the second part of the story.

Natural gas drilling has skyrocketed in the U.S. (even if production is starting to flatten now), and with it have come new advances in directional drilling technology. New drilling techniques not only make natural gas extraction more efficient, they also make underground fiber networks less expensive to deploy. While many of the communications networks across America today are hoisted up on telephone poles, those that are buried under the earth are less prone to disruption and maintenance issues. When the costs of deployment can be mitigated, the lesser operational costs of underground fiber make it a better financial investment. That was RST's big bet.

RST Global has completed an initial underground network deployment as of this fall with 400 miles of backbone and middle-mile fiber installed. Now that the first phase of construction is complete, the company is working to sign up customers en masse and to build its footprint out even further. Limerick says that residential voice, video and data services are first on the company agenda, but he also hopes to have beta smart grid programs in place with utility companies within the next three to five months.

Like many of its counterparts across the country, RST is experimenting with how best to create and operate next-generation broadband networks. In RST's case, the company is making progress because of development and innovation in other commercial arenas: the textile mills that left water and electrical resources in place, and natural gas companies that have perfected new methods of drilling underground. Without those advancements outside the telecom industry, RST might not be in business today. Infrastructure begets innovation begets economic development begets further infrastructure. And the cycle continues.

Image courtesy of RST Global Communications

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