Closing the Digital Divide


There is a stark digital divide across the United States. Those without access to fast Internet services are at a disadvantage, unable to benefit from the social and economic benefits that connectivity provides. The problem is rooted in the fact that superfast broadband is not universally available, and isn’t affordable for many people.

In February this year, Verizon announced that it will be testing its next generation 5G service to customers in 11 cities across the U.S. The trials, which will be delivered over fixed wireless broadband, offer the promise of gigabit speed Internet, or faster. The goal is to connect customers with faster Internet, using more cost-effective technology than today’s wired alternatives. However, the advent of 5G technology will generate little excitement for those living in rural communities in America, which are isolated with little or no broadband connectivity. To these people, gigabit speed Internet will feel light-years away.

According to the FCC’s Broadband Progress Report 2016, rural areas have significantly slower broadband access, with 39 percent lacking superfast broadband (25Mbps), compared to just 4 percent in urban areas. Low population densities in rural areas means that phone and Internet companies rarely invest in network rollouts and upgrades in comparison to urban areas. Many small rural towns typically have broadband delivered by a single ISP, servicing the area with legacy DSL broadband, with speeds and reliability that cannot support online business services or consumer applications.

The digital divide is also present within communities as a result of varying incomes. Sixty percent of families with an income of $20,000 or less have no broadband connection in their homes, largely because of the cost. The implications for these homes can be severe: people struggle to do business from home, children cannot complete homework, and communications and entertainment services are restricted.

Recognizing that change is drastically needed, the FCC has recently laid out its vision for bringing broadband to more people across the U.S. The new FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, has announced a plan to provide $2 billion to encourage Internet service connectivity in rural parts of the country. To receive funding, ISPs must deliver on the FCC’s vision of providing affordable and reliable Internet to underserved areas.

However, the intentions of the FCC must be matched by new technology that can deliver high-speed broadband on a wide scale and at low cost. Currently the most popular method for delivering broadband access is fiber, which is problematic to deploy in built-up urban and suburban areas, causing disruption and requiring considerable feats of engineering to install. Cost also acts as a barrier to deployment; fiber is approximately three times more expensive than legacy copper broadband, at approximately $800-$3,000 per subscriber. The high cost is not only borne by the service provider, but also the end user, who must pay a premium for it. Subsequently, the deployment of fiber is slowing down across the country.

The digital divide extends from outlying rural areas into heavily populated inner cities. In under-connected areas, much of the population cannot afford the cost of services to make existing fiber based approaches profitable. The industry and the FCC should consider new methods of delivering cost-effective, high speed broadband across the United States. Fixed wireless technology can deliver broadband speeds akin to fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) at nearly one-tenth of the cost. This will dramatically reduce dependence on government funding, and new profitable and competitive ISP services can thrive in areas where wireline incumbents have failed.  

Fixed wireless broadband involves deploying new Points of Presence (PoPs), which are typically installed on rural towers, suburban residential

Jaime Fink

rooftops or utility poles, and urban buildings – delivering connectivity to dedicated clients’ homes. These PoPs can be connected directly to fiber or leverage short- or long-range point-to-point wireless backhaul connections to access nearby fiber. This makes the technology ideal for both hard to reach rural locations where fiber ends, and urban areas where delivering fiber to each subscriber is cost prohibitive, or impossible due to the disruption caused.

This next generation of fixed wireless access introduces critical capacity and spectrum reuse technology, achieved through ongoing MIMO and antenna beamforming scaling, and coordinated base station time synchronization. These techniques are critical for reducing spectrum utilization in scarce sub-6 GHz spectrum which is favorable in rural and suburban residential areas. Subsequently, networks do not have to rely on high-frequency millimeter wave bands, which, while widely available, struggle to reach homes in foliage-heavy outdoor environments where near line-of-sight in connectivity is necessary.

Without the cost constraints of fiber Internet connectivity, local and regional entities can partner with municipalities and can begin offering fixed wireless services. Some examples include electrical utility companies and cooperatives that already own utility poles, power and fiber, which can easily integrate wireless broadband offerings into their portfolios. Mobile service providers that currently don’t have a fixed broadband offering can easily move into the marketplace. Likewise, an aggressive new generation of venture-funded ISP entrants can compete directly with the incumbents, undercutting the market based on cost and performance. Areas across the U.S. that have suffered from poor broadband from a single supplier would be given more choice over their broadband service, with access to superfast speeds, delivering huge benefits to both consumers and businesses in the area.

As a result of this combination of factors, the industry is now looking at fixed wireless as the key access technology for rapidly commercializing 5G within a strict timeframe. There are sub-6GHz 5G fixed wireless solutions available today that can drive an effective 5G ecosystem in the near future. 5G fixed wireless technologies will soon be able to serve all environments efficiently on a global scale, replacing expensive FTTH.

The digital divide could soon be closed through the introduction of new fixed wireless broadband technology, which can deliver affordable Internet services to areas that are underserved, whilst driving competition between Internet service providers (ISPs).

Edited by Alicia Young
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