SWANSON: Reaching the broadband end zone, going the last 5 yards


We’ve recounted the many ways the pandemic revealed the superlative capacity, coverage, and robustness of the American internet. COVID-19 has even spurred accelerations of long-overdue innovations, such as telemedicine. But intense reliance on network connectivity since the start of the pandemic has also amplified the frustrations of Americans who live in the few remaining geographic pockets without broadband access. While most of America was able to fall back on virtual connectivity for work, school, and recreation, these mostly rural, remote places which lacked connectivity were truly cut off from the world.

Rural broadband has thus jumped up the priority list, and rightly so. We’ve been working to fill this tricky gap for more than two decades. Around 95 percent of the US population today has access to broadband of at least 25 megabits per second. 99 percent of non-rural households do, and 98 percent of non-rural households enjoy access to 100 megabits-per-second service.

The extraordinary expense of building cutting edge networks in sparsely populated areas — the last five percent — is not easily overcome. We’ve made halting headway with a smattering of federal and state programs, such as the clunky old Rural Utility Service broadband program. Now, we need to go the last five yards.

In solving the problem of the last five yards, however, we should look to the strategy that took us so successfully 95 yards down the field. Since 1996, when the communications world was mostly unleashed from the old monopoly model, telecom, cable, and mobile firms have invested $1.8 trillion in broadband networks. These fast and nearly ubiquitous networks allowed the US to become the world leader in network traffic, and they are the foundation of our explosive web, software, e-commerce, and general information industries.

But how do you bring the expertise of private sector networks to a small slice of the market which appears to be uneconomical to serve?

The best idea so far is the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). It’s a reverse auction in which private firms bid to serve subsidized geographies. In first-round bidding, scheduled for October 29, 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will allocate $16 billion to subsidize geographies which are unserved. Another $4 billion will later be auctioned to geographies which are underserved. If successful, RDOF probably won’t get us to the end zone, but it could move us to the two yard line or so.

The emergence of better wireless technologies, including 5G and the explosion of newly available spectrum now making its way through the pipeline, will be a crucial factor in reaching remote consumers. Wireless is usually more cost effective than wired for low-density locales, and the new, wider spectrum bands mean that wireless, more than in the past, can now achieve impressive broadband speeds.

And don’t forget satellites! This fall, Elon Musk’s new Starlink constellation, consisting of hundreds of small, ultra-low-orbit, krypton-propelled birds, will begin coming online. They will deliver faster, lower-latency service than ever, so they could be a cost-effective solution for many rural Americans.

At the same time, the FCC is looking for ways to improve its existing Lifeline program, which subsidizes the communications bills of low-income consumers. Even in places with network access, affordability can be a problem. So expanding awareness about the program and making sure the program is flexible enough to pay for a variety of services are key to making sure fewer people are left behind because of cost.

The combination of RDOF, individual state efforts, and new wireless and satellite technologies mean that within the next couple years, nearly all Americans could have access to broadband.

While these new networks won’t be in place before the school year begins next month, this episode is a reason to help the remaining five percent prepare for the future, which will surely surprise us.

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