Not everyone has access to high speed broadband services. While most of us have had an internet service provider (ISP) for years, those living in small towns and other rural areas still do not have adequate internet access if any at all. But there are multiple efforts in place to solve that problem. And financial assistance from the government in the form of infrastructure grants and loans are on the way. (To share your thoughts on how President Trump’s infrastructure plan may impact our industry, please take our survey here.)
According to government sources, about 93% of U.S. citizens have access to fixed broadband service with speeds up to 25 Mb/s. About 73% of U.S. citizens subscribe to a high speed broadband service. Most of this is in the urban areas. Only about 72% of the citizens in rural areas have such service. Another source says that about 40% of homes in remote areas cannot get high speed internet service from a cable or telecom company. Given that huge geographical areas of the U.S. are remote and sparsely populated, that is no surprise. There are far too few potential subscribers in these regions to support cable, DSL, fiber, or other installations. Bottom line is, there is no money in it. That leaves millions of Americans without access to the vast treasure trove of information, entertainment, and services that most of the rest of us take for granted. Add to that the fact that many low-income citizens simply cannot afford broadband service even if it was available. In government circles this condition is referred to as the “digital divide.” This “digital divide” has been known, recognized, and lamented for years.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and other government agencies have conducted studies and developed plans to solve this problem over the past several years. Some small projects have been implemented, but those have not addressed the big picture problem. But now, help is on the way in the form of President Trump’s proposed infrastructure funding. Cable, DSL, and fiber internet access is clearly a part of our massive public service infrastructure, declared or not. It is just as valuable an asset as electric, gas, water, and other utilities. All of these could use a healthy dose of infrastructure update. A big one that scares me is terrorist actions that can bring down the electric grid.
Broadband the Cheap(er) and Easy Way
Adding fiber and cables to expand the broadband access is horribly expensive and massively time-consuming. Getting permission to dig trenches for fiber or to string cables on existing poles is a real deterrent to such potential growth. The whole process is an ordeal and disruptive. But there appears to be a way to avoid the delays and expenses: wireless. It almost seems obvious.
Now with the forthcoming 5G wireless standards, equipment, and systems in development, there is a real viable alternative to fiber and cable. While wireless broadband service has been available for years in some areas, it is generally too slow to be really useful. The proposed 5G New Radio (NR) systems are more than fast enough to compete with fiber. Lots of small cells and backhaul will be needed but the costs of building out the rural areas are surely less than any other approach. Most of the major wireless carriers have indicated that fixed wireless broadband will be an initial service. Here is a chance to prove it.
And let’s not forget satellite. Some satellite broadband already exists but it is pretty poor, especially the upload. Just recently the FCC approved system of 720 low-Earth orbit satellites that should be a great option for those in rural areas.
The FCC has done much already to foster broadband solutions. The new chairman, Ajit Pai, says that bringing broadband to all Americans is his top priority. In fact, the FCC’s charter states that its number-one goal is making communications services available to everyone. Chairman Pai continues to work on freeing up more spectrum for wireless. And Pai is also going to announce shortly some relaxation of the current strict net neutrality rules. Less limiting regulation should help encourage more industry investment. There have been lots of broadband actions by the FCC over the past several years. Too many to list here. But if you are interested, go to www.fcc.gov and take a look.
And don’t forget to share your thoughts on how President Trump’s infrastructure plan may impact our industry by taking our survey today.