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The Pandemic Reveals the Broadband’s Blank Spots on the Map

The Pandemic Reveals the Broadband’s Blank Spots on the Map

by Justin Pollock, PhD, Product Line Manager, Infrastructure Antennas –Infinite Electronics

Under at least three presidents, the  Federal Communications Commission has promised to ensure that households in rural areas have access to the Internet. That promise remains unfulfilled, even after various initiatives have devoted billions of dollars to make it more appealing to telecom companies to serve these areas. Now, the pandemic has demonstrated how much more needs to be done, not just in rural areas but some urban areas too, as students and their parents struggle to deal with virtual learning. 

Consider these facts from Pew Research. As of late 2019, about two-thirds of rural Americans (63%) say they have a broadband Internet connection at home, 12% less than Americans overall, although down from 16% from 13 years ago. According to a 2020 report from the Rand Corporation, 1 in 5 students (about 9 million) do not have Internet access and one third of teachers do not have it, either. The percentages are even worse for lower-income households, where 35% with children ages 6 to 17 have no Internet access, compared with 6% of higher-income households. This means that for an enormous number of students, virtual learning is practically impossible.

And when broadband is available, the least expensive plans often do not provide the bandwidth required to support the demands of video, especially when several devices are simultaneously in use. As a result, students who have computers often wind up doing their work sitting outside coffee shops or other places where free Wi-Fi is available. In addition, about 4.4 million students lack consistent access to a computer, and 3.7 million lack Internet access. While more than half of households were provided computers from schools, only some were supplied with devices to access the Internet. 

Recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) notes that 14% of children ages 3 to 18 throughout the country do not have Internet access at home, and 34% reported not having Internet because they were unable to afford it, 4% because they did not have a home computer, and 4% because an Internet connection was not available in their area. This means at least 42% of children without home Internet will face barriers to connectivity.

This is despite the fact that Congress has repeatedly directed the FCC to provide universal communications and information services. Between 2013 and 2017, the FCC and the Department of Agriculture gave more than $22 billion to private companies to expand rural Internet service. Last January, the FCC committed another $20 billion over 10 years to the effort. The most recent mandate was included in the $2 trillion CARES Act that provided $100 million for facilities and equipment to improve rural broadband. Simply stated, it appears that throwing money at the problem does not work.

It is not difficult to understand why. Rural areas often have populations so low and so widely spread that it would be impossible for any telecom companies to make money, let alone build the infrastructure required to deliver the service. This leaves only Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) as the only alternative, where they are available. A WISP is a Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) provider that uses point-to-point microwave or millimeterWave links between its towers for coverage extension and backhaul, and point-to-multipoint links from the towers to the customer premises. In addition to providing broadband and phone service to residences, they also serve businesses and municipal governments.

Most WISPs are small companies established by members of the community, although some such as Rise Broadband are quite large and serve many areas and have hundreds of thousands of subscribers. WISPs use unlicensed spectrum in the ISM bands because acquiring licensed spectrum is too expensive. WISPs have come a long way since the first one was deployed in Laramie, WY, in 1992 and are increasingly using MIMO and other techniques and are taking advantage of the recently auctioned 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band. In some areas, downlink speeds can be more than 80 Mb/s.

However, these services require a buildup of infrastructure and are not available everywhere, and as the telecom companies have not stepped up to the plate, some cities have taken the matter into their own hands. In McKee, KY, the local telephone cooperative decided to use state and federal grants to build a fiber-optic network to everyone in the area with downlink speeds reaching 1 Gb/s. In North Dakota, telecoms bought the telephone infrastructure from US West to provide fiber-optic Internet to nearly everyone in the state. As a result, North Dakota now boasts some of the fastest speeds in America, with fiber coverage above 83%. 

In Utah, 11 municipal governments banded together to build an open-access network to deploy broadband infrastructure, contracting with ISPs to serve the customers. Not surprisingly, municipal broadband has not gone over well with the telecom companies, a classic example of which was in Chattanooga, TN. The city-owned electric power board initiated a plan to provide fiber-optic-delivered broadband to everyone in its service area after years of haranguing Comcast to improve service.

Comcast sued the city but lost, and while this might have set a precedent, telecom companies have continued to fight municipal broadband outside areas covered by electric utilities, taking action in nearly half of U.S. states. It is interesting to note that Chattanooga now has the fastest broadband speeds in America and is fourth in the world, with more than 1 Gb/s in both the uplink and downlink paths. In fact, of the top 10 cities in the world with the fastest broadband speeds, three of the top 10 are delivered not by telecom companies but by municipal entities.

Help, of Sorts, Is Coming 

Now that the pandemic has revealed the shortcomings of America’s broadband coverage, wireless carriers are beefing up their offerings, although they are still far from ideal. AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile offer their FWA, in which data is capped at 250 Gigabytes per month. The FWA plans average 25 Mb/s-50Mb/s down (1 Mb/s uplink) , depending on the area’s traffic load and supporting infrastructure. 

To their credit, the carriers are also rolling out a distance learning program in the USA that aims to provide broadband for a number of students from kindergarten to 12th grade at discounted rates. It’s based on LTE backbone infrastructure and includes mobile device management and other features required for student use.

All these efforts are a start but compared with what most households have they are lacking both in speed and in having data caps, none of which are mandated by cable or fiber services. Some also do not meet what the FCC considers an acceptable broadband speed of 25 Mb/s in the downlink and 3 Mb/s in the uplink. Another question is precisely where this service is available because the coverage maps provided by carriers have proven to be highly optimistic.

As it appears that the pandemic is far from over, the need for more widespread and affordable coverage is long overdue. Some have suggested an approach similar to the Rural Electrification Act, which was signed into law by Franklin Roosevelt as part of the New Deal in 1926 that provided federal loans for the installation of electrical distribution systems channeled through electric power companies. It has been updated by Presidents from Truman to Obama and in modified form still exists. The act brought power to places where none was available, which at that time were many.

However, the landscape has changed over the last 84 years, and implementing something similar in today’s competitive wireless environment seems highly unlikely to receive bipartisan support. It is also not necessary as long as the federal government takes steps to ensure the billions of dollars it doles out to the telecom industry is well spent and used for its intended purpose. I will leave it to you to assess the chance of that.