Finding solutions for rural broadband and digital inclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted broadband connectivity’s
importance and the need to bring connectivity to areas and consumers lacking
access to it. The “digital divide” has been a concern since the advent of the
commercial internet in the 1990s. There are good initiatives such as Comcast’s Internet
Essentials
Charter’s Spectrum Internet Assist, or Cox’s Connect2Compete that bring affordable internet
connections to low-income customers. Yet, there are discrepancies about how to
identify and serve the geographic areas lacking full broadband access.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, more than 80 percent of over 17 million American households without
reliable, affordable high-speed internet are in rural areas.

via Getty Images

Determining the best
deployment models

Cost remains a key determinant for broadband deployment. It
is expensive to build physical connections across large distances, especially
in rural areas with smaller concentrations of users, resulting in higher prices
for customers. Moving forward, new, innovative technical approaches other than
laying down fiber across these parts of the US will be a vital part of the equation
for getting more people connected to the internet.

As communications engineer Peter Rysavy recently wrote, “Tradeoffs between technology and spectrum are
complex but need to be understood if policy makers are to encourage the most
effective strategies to deliver broadband widely to rural environments.” The
cost of laying miles of fiber that would be needed to connect rural consumers
who are few and far from each other can be high.

Rysavy also noted that covering distance through wireless spectrum
has always been less expensive than laying wire. Nowhere is this truer than in
areas where the abilities of satellite, Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), and
fixed wireless can connect consumers at lower costs.

Moving forward

AT&T CEO John Stankey recently penned an op-ed arguing that policymakers should not be
prescriptive in tackling the challenge of achieving broadband access for all.
He writes, “As Congress debates earmarking up to $80 billion for rural
broadband as part of the next round of pandemic relief, we should give equal
weight to wired and wireless options.” To bring connectivity to unserved areas,
we must understand that various different technologies can contribute to
accomplishing this goal.

For example, providing internet service via satellite would
eliminate the need to lay hundreds of miles of fiber to reach rural areas. Elon
Musk’s SpaceX is building a constellation of low earth orbit satellites
called Starlink that
would deliver gigabit speeds and low latency, beaming a signal to a device that
would then send the last part of the signal via wired connections to homes,
offices, and schools. DSLs are still available, but fixed wireless has become a
more viable, more future-proof option. Fixed wireless bridges the “last mile”
to residents with a wireless receiver installed in their house to bring them a
traditional internet “backbone” connection.

Continued calls for funding should be met with a data-driven
approach to bridge the divide. My AEI colleagues Bret Swanson and Matt Au note in
their recent blog several federal programs that aim to increase
connectivity. Better mapping would ensure these programs deploy their resources
effectively, ensuring government funds are directed toward areas that are truly
unserved.

Where to incentivize investment versus where to give
government funding is fundamental to this challenge. Finding the right
measurement tools to give each community an appropriate solution is key to
solving the digital divide problem too. Stankey points to the “need to identify
where broadband is unavailable with geographic precision,” noting that
the Broadband DATA Act signed into law this past March
should help give broadband providers the information they need to improve access
in the future. The next step would be for Congress to act on funding and enable
the investment needed to bring these options to consumers as quickly as
possible.

Bridging the rural broadband divide should continue to be a
top priority for policymakers. They can clear the path for broadband deployment
by reducing regulatory barriers, incentivizing public and private
infrastructure investment, increasing the accuracy of mapping, and promoting
innovative technology solutions with both wireless and wireline communications. 

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