Return to Overview

Digital Infrastructure is the Foundation of the Internet

Digital Infrastructure is the Foundation of the Internet

Bridging the digital divide has to start with infrastructure deployment – first mile, middle mile, and last mile.


For most of us, every aspect of our daily lives relies on broadband internet. Listening to your favorite music on Spotify, navigating a road trip, meeting with colleagues on Zoom, placing an Amazon order…that’s the internet. And the digital infrastructure – the fiber-optic cables, landing stations, and data centers – that support it. If you paid bills through your banking app, checked in with family on social media, saw your doctor via telemedicine, or took an online class, it was thanks to digital infrastructure.

Most people take broadband internet, and the activities it enables, for granted. But for as many as 163 million Americans, and billions more people around the world, those activities are much more difficult – if not impossible – because digital infrastructure isn’t available.

Quick Take:
  • Digital infrastructure includes the first mile (subsea cables and cable landing stations), the middle mile (backhaul networks and regional points of presence), and the last mile (smaller local networks that bring the internet into the community).
  • First-mile infrastructure deployment challenges include regulatory barriers, environmental considerations, and geology.
  • Middle-mile challenges include right-of-way and permitting issues, cost, and construction and maintenance.
  • Last-mile challenges include high cost, which often dissuades service providers from building infrastructure to serve markets that are harder to reach and/or have lower population densities.
  • The challenges can be overcome – Toptana is doing it. Ideally, we’d have all hands on deck with public-private cooperation to ensure that everyone can fully participate in the digital economy.
The foundation of the internet

Because digital infrastructure is the foundation of the internet, bridging the digital divide – making broadband internet available, affordable, and accessible to all – has to start with infrastructure.

First-mile internet infrastructure

First-mile connectivity includes the subsea cables and cable landing stations required to connect continents. Is this important? As researchers at the Center for Strategic and International Studies put it, “Asking how important subsea cables are to a digitally driven economy is like asking a fish how important water is.” Over 97% of intercontinental internet traffic is carried by subsea cables.

Global Subsea Cables

Source: TeleGeography

The typical lifespan for subsea fiber cables is 20-25 years. Over time, cables degrade, and rapid technological advancements render them sub-optimal; there is almost always a need for newer cables that have more bandwidth capacity. Indeed, demand has continued to rise exponentially – including demand for bandwidth between the Pacific U.S. and Asia Pacific.

Washington State hasn't had new submarine fiber-optic cables land in over twenty years. (Oregon and California have laid 14 in that period.) There are currently two cable landing points in Washington, both built in 1999. Toptana's cable landing station on the Olympic Peninsula would be the first-ever landing station on Washington's Pacific coastline, connecting to various cable landing stations in Asia-Pacific.

Middle-mile internet infrastructure

Middle-mile infrastructure includes high-capacity fiber-optic cables, typically referred to as backhaul networks. In the U.S., backhaul networks (the blue lines on the map) run across the country between major cities. In those cities are regional points of presence (PoPs) – data centers where backhaul networks connect to each other and split into smaller local (last mile) networks to deliver connectivity within the region.

U.S. Terrestrial Fiber

Source: GeoTel via TechRepublic

When it comes to bridging the digital divide, much of the public funding pre-2021 focused on last mile connectivity. But there are many places – including the Quinault Indian Nation – where it is a lack of first and/or middle mile connectivity that creates the digital divide. So it’s great to see recent legislation, including American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) provide funding for both middle mile and last mile infrastructure deployment.

Toptana is deploying middle mile infrastructure – a backhaul network from the cable landing station to I-5, offering efficient interconnection from Seattle, Washington to Hillsboro, Oregon and ensuring end-to-end subsea and terrestrial architecture. The nearly 300 miles of terrestrial cable, outfitted with dark fiber capacity (available to any network service provider), will deliver critical middle-mile connectivity to the region.

Last mile internet infrastructure

Last mile infrastructure is the smaller local networks that deliver connectivity into communities. Last mile connectivity may or may not rely on fiber-optic cables, though last mile fiber – what’s referred to as fiber-to-the-premises – is widely seen as the best in terms of speed and reliability. In acknowledgment of that fact, new broadband infrastructure funding programs like the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program (BEAD) specify a preference for fiber.

Toptana’s middle-mile backhaul will pave the way for the development of last mile infrastructure into the homes, schools, and businesses of the Quinault Indian Nation and neighboring communities.

Learn more about first, middle, and last mile internet infrastructure on pages 12-14 of the Bridging the Digital Divide ebook.


Unfortunately, there are tremendous challenges to overcome at every stage to build the infrastructure required to make broadband internet available, affordable, and accessible to all.

First mile infrastructure deployment challenges include:
  • Regulatory barriers – The process of obtaining permits to build new cable landing stations and lay submarine cables can be complicated and time-consuming, and approval is far from guaranteed.
  • Environmental considerations – Building new cable landing stations and laying submarine cables can have environmental impacts, and there may be concerns about the potential effects on local ecosystems and wildlife. 
  • Geology – The seafloor is a complicated terrain for any construction project. Its topography is made up of diverse sediment materials, such as rock, sand, and mud. The surface of the sea floor is uneven – in some ways, not unlike dry land – and not all sea floors are ideal for laying cable.
Middle mile infrastructure deployment challenges include:
  • Right-of-way and permitting issues – Installing fiber-optic cables typically requires obtaining permits and permissions from local and state government agencies. These agencies may have different requirements and processes, which can create additional complexity and delays.
  • Cost – Fiber-optic cables can be expensive to install and maintain, especially over long distances. The cost of deploying fiber-optic infrastructure may be a barrier for some providers, particularly in areas with low population density or low demand.
  • Construction and maintenance challenges – In rural areas, installation of fiber-optic cables can be challenging due to rough terrain, remote locations, and limited access to equipment and materials. Once installed, fiber cables require regular maintenance and repair to ensure optimal performance; which can be expensive and time-consuming, particularly in rural areas.
Last mile infrastructure deployment challenges include:
  • Cost – Deploying fiber requires a significant up-front investment. There’s a common refrain when it comes to last mile infrastructure: ‘As a capital-intensive project, laying cable in areas that are poor and/or sparsely populated is often not economically viable.’ It is true that broadband providers are less likely to enter rural markets due to the actual or perceived lower profitability of harder-to-reach markets (which cost more to reach) with lower population densities (fewer potential customers). Yet research shows that there is potential for profitability in last-mile infrastructure deployments even in rural areas.

Learn more about challenges to broadband infrastructure deployment on pages 15-17 of the Bridging the Digital Divide ebook.

Recognizing how important it is for the Quinault community, for Washington state, and for the billions (yes, billions) of people who will be connected by this infrastructure, we are dedicating the time, energy, resources, and capital to overcome those challenges. The Quinault Indian Nation has paved the path, dedicating some of our most valuable talent and resources to improve the quality of life for our community and to help better the industry.

By bringing connectivity to unserved and underserved communities – including and beyond QIN – we’re connecting the digitally disconnected so that all people can fully participate in the digital economy. This will mean better healthcare, education, business opportunities, job prospects, and safety programs. Together, these improvements to quality of life will create upward mobility.

But it all starts with infrastructure.