With the dramatic shift towards working, learning, and connecting remotely last year at the height of the pandemic, the essential nature of broadband internet access has never been clearer. While fiber continues to be installed and speeds for some people have increased from megabits per second to gigabit rates, there are still many people who don’t have access at home and can’t easily get online regularly. Especially in rural areas, 5G is an important part of getting more people connected.
I recently spoke with Timothy Day on the Samsung Recalibrate podcast about why this digital divide exists, who is affected by it, and what is being doing to help bridge this space for the millions of Americans left behind by the digital divide.
The FCC defines high-speed broadband as 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 megabits per second upload. Based on that definition, the research group Broadband Now estimates that at least 42 million Americans lack access to broadband where they live.
On one side of the digital divide are those with easy and always-on high-speed access; on the other, those who must go to a certain place or wait for a certain time to be online, or never have the opportunity to use this crucial service in their daily lives because of various barriers. As the pandemic has shown us all, if you don’t have Internet today, you will be left behind.
Last year the FCC launched the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which is set to spend more than $20 billion over the next ten years to help close the rural digital divide, and the 5G Fund for Rural America, which could spend another $9 billion.
The president’s recently announced infrastructure proposal, the American Jobs Plan, would add a lot more for broadband deployment if passed by Congress, approaching $100 billion. The recent COVID relief laws (the year-end 2020 spending law and the American Rescue Plan from earlier this year) also include spending for people who have access to broadband but can’t afford the service, need help buying the equipment, or need technical help getting online successfully, but more needs to be done to put these programs into action and make them longer-lasting beyond the pandemic.
We also believe that 5G should play a big part in the solution, as it is a leap forward in wireless capability. We need Congress and the FCC to implement broadband funding in a technology neutral way that recognizes the potential of wireless and 5G.
We see it as a great solution for closing the digital divide through affordable, rapidly deployable broadband to homes. 5G provides the high speed and low latency expected from fiber, but wirelessly. Generally, the data rates won’t be as high as with fiber to the home, but they are more than fast enough for education, employment, healthcare, and social purposes.
Wireless broadband does not generally provide symmetrical data rates—download is faster than upload—but this is consistent with most consumer usage. With wireless, a larger area can be covered without expensive and time-consuming stringing of lines to each house, saving a lot of up-front cost. This is especially important in rural areas where homes are far apart and therefore, the return on investment for deploying fiber is low.
For all these reasons, we’d like to see Congress remove technical requirements that slant broadband deployment funding toward wireline solutions, such as symmetrical uploads and downloads, and instead adopt a technologically neutral approach.
Looking further ahead, the FCC should continue allocating spectrum in the mid-bands, building upon recent progress in CBRS and the recent C-Band auction. And, local governments must continue to streamline the 5G siting process. Many new cell sites will be needed to fully implement 5G, and minimizing the regulatory requirements is an important step.