The good news is that we’ve made some real progress toward closing the digital divide. The economic and societal consequences of having wide swaths of the population left with insufficient internet access have been made clear.
Washington’s policymakers are tabling initiatives and the telecommunications sector is stepping up. Things have improved.
According to a 2021 Pew Research report, a full 77% of American adults had home broadband internet. That’s up from 73% in 2019 – a positive development.
So, are we just about there? Closing the digital divide finally seems within reach. Some think that we’re in the final stretch and one more push from Washington will get things done.
Now here’s the bad news: the bar has been raised.
Many of the standards for what was considered appropriate internet access are no longer good enough. These changes can generally be attributed to the post-Covid changes in the way we work, study, and live. Internet service is another area where the pandemic highlighted and deepened inequities.
It isn’t good enough for someone to have some form of at-home internet access. The digital divide now applies to the speed and quality of service.
That was always been true to some extent. But the ramifications of having poor internet service are direr since Covid. We do much more online than we used to.
Almost all of us are videoconferencing and streaming. The ability to work or study from home when needed is now a prime factor in advancing or setting back economic equality.
Closing the digital gap means giving everyone high-quality internet access so they can access online services, courses, and programs, and participate in the digital economy.
The digital divide is still here with lower income, rural, and marginalized people having less access to services.
Where the Digital Divide Stands Now
Let’s revisit Pew Research’s 2021 findings. So 77% of American adults had home broadband internet which is up from 73% in 2019. That might seem fine. However, the digital divide shows up clearly when looking at internet access by income.
Only 57% of those making under 30,000 reported having broadband internet access. Quality matters too, and a full 30% of Americans reported experiencing problems with their connection.
Another Pew Research report stated that 34% of lower-income home broadband users had difficulty paying for their services during Covid-19.
We can’t examine the digital divide by counting a few cell phone bars or bare minimum Mbps as access.
True digital equity means closing the gap between those who have adequate internet access and those who do not. And the current official standards for what we consider “adequate” just went up.
A Clear Definition of What Constitutes Digital Equity
The FCC’s current broadband service benchmark is 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream (25/3). This is the minimum needed for individuals to reliably send and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications.
There are two problems to contend with in order to achieve that: network accessibility and affordability.
- Network accessibility is primarily a problem in rural areas that lack sufficient infrastructure.
- Affordability is an issue for all lower-income individuals, including urban, rural, and suburban.
Achieving true digital equity means delivering fast, reliable, and affordable internet to every person that needs it – no matter where they are.
Do Fiber-to-the-Home Ideals Represent a Viable Solution?
The FCC still wants to achieve 98% nationwide deployment of future-proofed, fixed broadband networks. Digital equity programs tend to focus on increasing broadband access by laying down fiber optic cable networks.
Federal attempts to close the gap started with President Obama’s 2012 Executive Order “Accelerating Broadband Infrastructure Deployment,” which included directions for placing fiber optic cables on Federal land.
These efforts have continued over the years. The Biden Administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes $65 billion for broadband infrastructure and focuses heavily on fiber optical cables. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) has set aside $20.371 billion for broadband-focused digital equity.
Fiber network service is prioritized because it has the reputation for providing the best internet service. It’s perceived as being the most reliable and the fastest. Fiber to the home is the crème de la crème.
If the digital divide is to be closed by creating real digital equity through equitable service levels, then increasing fiber penetration seems to be the only path.
However, those notions are unrealistic as fiber optic cable installation is far too expensive to make fiber-to-the-home or predominantly fiber coverage a viable solution.
Fiber Networks Alone Won’t Solve the Digital Divide
The economics of closing the digital divide with fiber internet don’t make sense – even with government funding.
It can cost around $8,000 to install high-speed fiber infrastructure in one home. And it costs around $27,000 to lay one mile of fiber optic cable. There are varying cost estimates for what it will take to fully connect America.
ACA Connects (America’s Communications Association) estimates that it will take $20 billion to $37 billion to close the digital gap with 25/3 Mbps broadband service. However, building future-proof broadband infrastructure networks capable of providing 100 Mbps service will cost an estimated $106 billion to $179 billion.
The FCC has estimated that closing the digital divide with fiber networks will cost around $40 billion.
However, Harvard Business Review estimates it will cost at least $240 billion to close the digital divide. This figure is based on terrestrial broadband infrastructure for high-bandwidth internet that can support videoconferencing and streaming.
Even if governments are willing to pour money into it, this type of infrastructure doesn’t have great investment economics.
The Poor Economics of Fiber Internet Infrastructure
Fiber to the home network investments have a long payback period. It can take 15 to 20 years to recoup the investment. The payback period will be extended if the cables are damaged, deteriorate in quality, require repairs, or need upgrading.
That’s not good. Making things even worse is that some fiber optic cables will only last around 20 years, on the short end. These numbers aren’t great for initiatives targeting low-income communities or customer demographics.
Fiber-to-the-home deployments are already labor and resource-intensive. There isn’t much incentive for private service providers to invest in it when bringing service to rural or low-income areas.
These economics are behind the rise of digital redlining. This term refers to the creation and perpetuation of inequities in already marginalized groups through digital infrastructure, digital technologies, digital access, the internet, and digital content.
Digital Redlining Persists with Fiber Networks
Internet service providers have been accused of digital redlining for failing to bring fiber internet access or appropriate alternatives to rural, lower-income, and marginalized communities.
AT&T has been accused of digitally redlining its customers. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) claims that AT&T has worsened the digital divide by failing to invest in fiber-optic cables in lower-income communities.
AT&T has invested heavily in new 5G technologies and fiber penetration. Its fiber penetration rose to 34% in 2021, up from 28% in the previous year. However, the increase in penetration was concentrated in areas that already had good service. Its rural penetration was still low and a third of its subscribers were left without good broadband service options.
The government’s regulatory subsidies weren’t enough to get AT&T to invest in bringing fiber optic networks to lower-income areas. The ISP’s CEO John Stankey has openly stated that fiber isn’t viable in rural markets even though rural subscribers lacked good service.
Stankey sees rural fiber optics as an infrastructure overbuild. In his words, it’s “a capital-intensive technology business that requires constant refresh and constant management.”
That’s a clear example of digital redlining, along with a clear case of government spending not being enough to outweigh poor economics.
An interesting note is that the NDIA backed up their claims by stating that fiber optic is the worldwide standard for broadband networks.
It may be true that AT&T has deepened the digital divide and failed to provide adequate service. However, fiber optics isn’t the only option.
It seems like neither public nor private organizations can see past fiber infrastructure as the way to provide broadband internet access. Ironically, the fixation on fiber is contributing to digital inequities.
Many service providers have failed to equip themselves with suitable alternatives or complements to fiber-optic service. AT&T ran into issues when phasing out older technologies, like DSL, without being able to replace them with lower-cost alternatives.
It also creates issues when service providers and digital initiatives are choosing where to invest their resources. Choosing to see cost-intensive fiber optics as the only acceptable solution leaves marginalized communities behind.
Logistics alone should rule out fiber optics service as a way to rapidly close the digital divide. Furthermore, internet service providers aren’t charities. Major infrastructure investments have to make financial sense.
As we’ve already seen, government spending doesn’t always incentive them to extend fiber optics to marginalized or rural areas. And fiber to the home is almost always ruled out.
It’s past time to consider other options. Universal fiber-to-the-home might sound nice but clinging to these ideals will ultimately leave customers in the dark.
So, what are the other options if fiber alone is too expensive and difficult to be a reasonable solution?
Practical Solutions for Closing the Digital Divide
Connectivity tracker BroadbandNow Research estimates that 42 million Americans are unable to purchase sufficient broadband internet – and rural areas are heavier hit.
Rural areas present the most challenges as these residents are far-flung. Lower-income, rural residents still need affordable, high-bandwidth, high-speed service.
As already mentioned, the post-pandemic increase in internet use puts further demand on services. In an interview with MarketWatch, Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of the NTCA – the Rural Broadband Association, commented on the service strain.
Bloomfield said, “what we’ve learned in the pandemic is that speeds we thought were sufficient, are nowhere near sufficient. Instead of a burst of demand during the week from six to nine at night, we now see a steady stream of demand all day long.”
The digital divide has to be closed with cost-effective, easily deployed, robust internet technologies.
This means augmenting fiber infrastructure with some form of last-mile access. Or completely swapping fiber out for a better alternative. And this is where the problems lie.
Solutions that are economically viable alternatives haven’t been technologically up to par with fiber. Aside from increasing mobile connectivity, the main alternative has been providing fixed wireless access.
Fixed wireless facilitates installing location-specific internet service which should be ideal for rural areas. These can be placed outdoors and targeted to the customer in need.
However, traditional fixed wireless access networks rely on Wi-Fi technology which leaves them vulnerable to unlicensed-spectrum interference and interruptions from physical object obstructions.
Last-mile fixed wireless access solutions have developed a reputation for being finicky and prone to lag. These networks have never been proven able to deliver reliable, high-speed internet service. And they’re even less suited to cope with the higher levels of internet demand spurred on by the pandemic.
These factors are why many policymakers and activists dismiss it as a potential solution to closing the digital divide. That’s not what we’re proposing.
The Next-Generation Fixed Wireless Answer
Introducing next-generation fixed wireless access – a new telecommunications technology that’s capable of bridging the digital divide.
Next-generation fixed wireless access is a drastic advancement over legacy systems. The hardware, software, and capabilities are unlike anything else.
Here’s a quick rundown of ngFWA’s tech:
- Algorithms with higher-order complexity
- High total spectral efficiency
- Distributed massive MIMO design
- High real-time digital signal processing capacity
- Real-time cancellation of unlicensed spectrum interference
Technological excitements aside, here’s what ngFWA means for providing affordable, high-speed internet service wherever it’s needed.
- Its optimized for outdoor wireless networks
- It provides fiber-level throughput
- It delivers low latency
- It provides high service uniformity
- Its deployment is shorter and easier
It ultimately provides affordable, reliable, and easily deployed high-speed internet service while enabling overbuilding for a more competitive provider space.
This technology was deployed by over 200 service providers during its first year on the market. As adoption increases, it’s set to become the biggest gamechanger in facilitating digital equity.
An Affordable, Future-Proof, High-Speed Internet Solution
Next-generation fixed wireless access is the technology needed to provide affordable, high-speed internet wherever it’s needed. It delivers throughput at fiber-class levels that can be considered future-proof. And its architecture supports overbuilding to encourage marketplace competition.
Let’s travel forwards five years forwards into a future where ngFWA products have taken off around the world.
There’s a homeschooled farm kid streaming their lessons on blazing fast internet. A strapped-for-cash guitarist earns money giving videoconferencing music lessons with perfect sound and zero lag.
A rural medical center got digitally connected without blowing out its budget. A part-time teacher provides after-school video tutoring lessons to inner city students.
Service providers have built off the infrastructure to offer their customers far more choices at super-affordable and profitable pricing.
And digital redlining is finally over – at least when it comes to internet access.
Policymakers and service providers can step forwards into that future now. Reach out to us today to learn more about how we can get there together.