Article originally posted on Inside Towers:
November 8, 2022
Many of the world’s largest infrastructure funds and private equity investors have identified the Midwest of the United States as a focus area to spend billions of dollars in upgrading the region’s broadband infrastructure to fiber and, in so doing, deliver superior internet, video, and voice services to homes and businesses. These initiatives have been undertaken by both newly-formed fiber providers and legacy businesses that have been re-capitalized and positioned to grow.
As a whole, Midwest fiber deployments are ongoing across the region’s 12 states, including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. But two states in the region particularly stand-out – Illinois and Indiana.
Dgtl Infra, in-partnership with Pinpoint Capital Advisors1, a leading boutique investment bank specialized in digital infrastructure, including the fiber sector, take an in-depth look at the Midwest fiber internet market. Specifically, we detail why the Midwest is strategically important, how government funding initiatives are incentivizing fiber deployments in the region, and which investors are fueling growth in the Midwest fiber market.
Additionally, Pinpoint Capital Advisors shares a real-world case study showcasing investor interest in the Midwest fiber market, whereby the firm acted as exclusive financial advisor to Computer Techniques, Inc. (CTI Fiber) on the sale of the business to Joink, a portfolio company of DIF Capital Partners.
Strategic Importance of Fiber in the Midwest
The rural U.S. has undergone significant upheaval. Traditional business sectors, including agriculture, resources, and manufacturing are disappearing. The new economy is built around innovation, ideas, and technology – but it has overlooked many rural places – concentrating jobs, wealth, and capital in large metro regions. This has left the rural U.S. lacking economic security. Fiber investment is poised to reverse this trend.
Historically, the Midwest’s small and mid-sized markets have been underserved, or even unserved, by the large telecommunications and cable companies operating in the region, including AT&T, CenturyLink, Frontier, Windstream, Comcast (Xfinity), Charter (Spectrum), Mediacom, and Cable One.
But new investors are filling this void by strategically deploying capital into next-generation fiber networks that either fill specific network gaps or overbuild legacy copper networks. In turn, these investors are supporting increased fiber availability and improved quality of service for residential and business customers.
Fiber is superior to cable and copper-based digital subscriber line (DSL) – both of which are prevalent in small and mid-sized Midwest markets. Specifically, fiber offers multi-gigabit symmetrical download and upload speeds, which are faster than those of cable and DSL, while also delivering lower latency.
Presently, fiber providers in the Midwest are offering affordable, symmetrical speeds of up to 2 gigabits per second (Gbps) to homes and businesses, where current high-speed broadband availability is limited. Importantly, this level of service enables high-quality video streaming, videoconferencing, telehealth, distance learning, sharing of large files, and much more.
Across the Midwest, fiber deployment is reaching into smaller communities often categorized as rural. Many of these communities possess a level of density (defined by number of homes per square mile) that makes it economical to lay fiber and offer fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) service.
Recent advancement in fiber and fiber network technology has made it more economic to lay fiber outside of urban areas. New drilling/boring equipment and trenching techniques have also helped. These networks are now typically constructed at an average cost of $1,000 to $1,250 per residential household passed or $60,000 to $80,000 per mile.
The digital divide represents the gap between people with good access to digital and information technology and those with very limited or no access at all. By establishing competitive choice in rural, unserved, and underserved areas and by providing households access to a future-proof, 100% fiber-optic network, new investors are helping to “bridge” the digital divide, changing the landscape for local businesses, educational institutions, and government offices, by offering them an ability to work/compete on a level playing field with peers/competitors situated in larger, metro areas of the country.
At the same time, for investors to prioritize the expansion of connectivity in areas with the most need for broadband, such as rural, unserved, and underserved areas, the business case must be economically attractive. To incentivize this bridging of the digital divide, new programs have been created both nationally and in specific Midwest states – which are discussed next.
Government Funding for Broadband in the Midwest
Broadband funding programs, grants, and subsidies from federal, state, and local governments to build fiber networks are incentivizing growth, particularly in rural, unserved, and underserved areas.
Nationally, the United States supports fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) deployments through the following programs:
- Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD): $42.45 billion of funding set aside as grants in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which will be administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a federal agency
- Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF): $20.4 billion total for Phase 1 and 2, of which $9.2 billion was allocated in Phase 1. RDOF provides capital expenditure subsidies in support of high-speed broadband, at speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) downstream and 3 Mbps upstream, to unserved and underserved areas of the United States
Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) – Phase I Results – Midwest States
As shown below, funding from federal broadband programs, such as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), result in different levels of assigned support by state. Focusing on the 12 Midwest states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin – a total of $2.55 billion in RDOF support was assigned over a 10-year period in Phase I. Indeed, this represents nearly 28% of all RDOF support assigned across the U.S. in Phase I.
State-Specific Broadband Funding Programs, Grants, and Subsidies
While each of the 12 Midwest states has its own unique broadband funding programs, grants, and/or subsidies, we highlight examples of key programs from two of the most populous Midwest states, namely Illinois and Indiana:
In August 2019, J. B. Pritzker, the Governor of Illinois, launched an initiative known as Connect Illinois, to expand broadband access across the entire state. The initiative includes a $400 million broadband deployment grant program and a $20 million capital program for the Illinois Century Network (ICN), which focuses on serving schools.
In particular, Connect Illinois seeks to address disparities in broadband access and adoption in rural regions and black and brown communities across the state – attempting to close the growing broadband access gap.
Next Level Connections Broadband Grant Program
Indiana’s Next Level Connections Broadband Grant Program aims to invest $270 million toward improving broadband access and adoption in Indiana. Specifically, this program is designed to provide grants for the deployment of broadband infrastructure to unserved households, businesses, schools, and health clinics.
Broadband providers seeking to participate in Indiana’s program must commit to bringing high-speed, terrestrial broadband with download speeds of more than 50 megabits per second (Mbps) in areas where there is currently less than 25 Mbps available. Furthermore, priority of funding is given to projects that provide symmetrical download and upload speeds of 100 Mbps or greater.
Investor Capital is Fueling Growth in Midwest Fiber
Infrastructure funds and private equity investors have clearly recognized the attractiveness of investing in the Midwest fiber market, with large-scale capital outlays for fiber builds from firms including Oak Hill through Omni Fiber, KKR via MetroNet, Apollo as part of Brightspeed’s large-scale roll-out, and DIF Capital through Joink.
Oak Hill – Omni Fiber
Oak Hill Capital, a middle-market private equity firm focused on North America, has made a $250 million commitment to Omni Fiber, a newly formed fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) Internet provider deploying fiber-based broadband networks in the Midwest.
While Omni Fiber intends to bring fiber internet, TV, and phone services to homes and businesses in communities across the broader Midwest, the company’s initial projects will be located in the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.
KKR – MetroNet
KKR is investing in the digital infrastructure sub-sector of fiber through its KKR Global Infrastructure Investors fund series. Alongside Oak Hill, KKR is a major investor in MetroNet, which serves or is constructing fiber networks in the Midwest states of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Missouri.
MetroNet’s broadband internet, phone, and IPTV services are delivered across its 100% fiber-optic network made up of thousands of miles of fiber optic cables connected directly to homes and businesses. The company is deploying 10-gigabit symmetrical passive optical network (XGS-PON) technology, which delivers data download and upload speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second (Gbps).
Apollo – Brightspeed
Apollo Global Management, through its portfolio company Brightspeed, plans to pass over 3 million consumer and business locations in the U.S. with fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP), as part of a more than $2 billion investment program. Brightspeed is deploying fiber into rural and suburban communities within 20 states, with this service territory coming from Apollo’s $7.5 billion acquisition of Lumen Technologies’ ILEC business.
In the Midwest, Brightspeed has disclosed plans to build fiber in the states of Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Initially, the company is planning to pass 454,000 locations with fiber, in these Midwest states, by the end of 2023, and aims to ultimately reach a total of 1,084,000 locations with fiber in subsequent years. Below is a breakdown of Brightspeed’s initial and total fiber passings by Midwest state:
Brightspeed Fiber Passings by Midwest State – Initial and Total
DIF Capital – Joink
DIF Capital Partners, an infrastructure investment manager, is the financial sponsor of Joink, a company that provides residential fiber, enterprise fiber, and fixed wireless services in rural markets of Western Indiana and Eastern Illinois.
In Indiana, Joink offers fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) service in the counties of Vigo, Vermillion, Parke, Clay, and Sullivan. While in Illinois, Joink offers fixed wireless service in the counties of Clark, Coles, Crawford, Cumberland, and Edgar and fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) in Clark County.
Most recently, Joink acquired CTI Fiber, an Illinois-based fiber optics provider, to accelerate its fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) deployments in Central Illinois. We discuss this transaction further in the next section.
Other Notable Fiber Investors in the Midwest
In addition to the four examples provided above, investors including APG, Bain Capital Credit, Crosstimbers Capital, GCM Grosvenor / Novacap, GI Partners, Goldman Sachs, Grain Management, GTCR, Macquarie Infrastructure, Meridiam, Northleaf Capital, SDC Capital Partners, Searchlight Capital, and Wren House Infrastructure are all funding new fiber deployments in the Midwest region:
Pinpoint Capital Advisors – Financial Advisor to CTI Fiber on Sale of Business to Joink
Among recent fiber transactions in Illinois and Indiana, Pinpoint Capital Advisors acted as exclusive financial advisor to awarding-winning, Midwest fiber internet service provider, CTI Fiber, on the sale of the business to Joink LLC, a DIF CIF II portfolio company owned by DIF Capital Partners.
CTI Fiber is an Illinois-based fiber optics provider with a network that passes over 12,000 homes across Christian County and Montgomery County, Illinois and is growing quickly.
CTI Fiber provided internet, voice, and video services to residential customers and internet, voice, and private transport data solutions to business customers. Under Joink’s ownership, the company plans to significantly increase the speed of CTI’s fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) deployment in Central Illinois.
Pinpoint Capital Advisor’s Competitive Sale Process
Pinpoint Capital Advisors represented the selling shareholders and ran a competitive sale process for CTI Fiber, securing numerous bids from leading strategic and financial (i.e., infrastructure funds and private equity) buyers.
Overall, Pinpoint focused on executing a highly structured sale process that included:
- A deep-dive into the CTI Fiber business in order to identify and highlight the existing and future value of the company for potential acquirers
- Reviewing and assisting in the financial modeling of the CTI Fiber business and growth plan
- Developing compelling marketing materials
- Leveraging its extensive relationships with all the relevant industry players and mid-market institutional investors
- Soliciting bids from a vetted list of potential acquirors
- Providing dedicated, senior-level attention and advice to its client throughout the transaction process and negotiation of definitive agreements
The value of CTI Fiber was compelling. CTI Fiber offered potential acquirers already operating in Central Illinois the opportunity to quickly seize an attractive geographic cluster already passed with state-of-the-art pure fiber while leveraging the CTI Fiber team’s experience, operational skill, and resources to build-out into adjoining areas faster.
CTI Fiber – Transaction Value by Bidder
Pinpoint Capital Advisors – Overview
Pinpoint Capital Advisors is a leading boutique investment bank1 specialized in digital infrastructure including the wireless tower, fiber, and data center sectors. The firm advises on transactions (including divestitures, mergers and acquisitions) and raises capital from lower-cost, longer-term institutional investors.
Pinpoint has a reputation for developing winning transaction strategies for deals of virtually every size and type. Pinpoint’s extensive relationships span strategics, infrastructure and private equity funds, pension plans, insurance companies, and family offices.
(1)Securities Products and Investment Banking Services are offered through BA Securities, LLC. Member FINRA SIPC. Pinpoint Capital Advisors Incorporated, a business consulting company and BA Securities, LLC are separate, unaffiliated entities.