For more than ten years, scores of people, organizations, and federal, state, and local agencies have been using band aids to “fix” the digital divide and address poverty-level access to broadband services across the United States. Many have been writing about and actively pushing for a much more focused and central approach to finally extending broadband to everyone who wants and needs it regardless of their location or ability to pay.
I have written many articles about rural broadband. In one Public Safety Advocate, I likened the lack of broadband coordination to the Headless Horseman. In “It Takes a Disaster to Prompt a Change,” I pointed out that it took too many disasters before the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) FirstNet was created. I also expressed my hope that the Covid-19 pandemic would spur the United States on to increase broadband access for rural and poverty-level citizens. Yet here we are, a year after the pandemic arrived at our shores, and while we have accomplished some of our objectives, much more remains just out of our reach.
I believe this is because we do not have a person, group, or department whose sole purpose is to make rural broadband a reality, to determine which technology or technologies are best suited for where, and how they can be deployed without creating pockets of coverage using a technology that does not provide an upgrade path. We need an organization to plan and fund build-outs AND ongoing network operations and expansion. Public/private partnerships, systems management, and more need to be based on a top-down, bottom-up approach. It should not be that difficult to get moving and get things done!
Let’s Reach a Consensus / End the Digital Divide by the End of 2021
The “Digital Divide” describes the lack of broadband connectivity in rural areas and in poverty belts in the United States and it is not new. While we have faced this problem for many years, now, because of the pandemic, more people have become aware of the issue. For more than a year, we have been asked to stay home, work from home, and school from home when possible. While many of us have been able to follow these guidelines, those who do not have access to broadband connectivity or who cannot afford it have been left to out.
According to various sources, more than 19 million people in this country (6-percent of the population) are without broadband/Internet access. The rest of us turn on our computers, laptops, or tablets and connect to our office, a world of shopping, school sessions, and friends. Others sit in the dark or walk miles to a store parking lot to access, if only for a few hours, what we take for granted. The reasons for the digital divide start with economics. If there is not a sufficient number of potential broadband users within a given area to offset the cost of providing services, people in that area will not have access to broadband/Internet services.
Beyond economics, while there are actually too many federal, state, and even local agencies offering grants and loans to offset the cost of broadband deployment, they offer little, if any, support for sustaining broadband services once they are deployed. The column “Rural Broadband, the Headless Horseman!” in the Advocate discusses the need for a central, focused approach to planning, funding, building, and operating broadband services.
Today, we are creeping toward erasing the digital divide. Funds are available for planning and implementation, but efforts need to be focused. There is not a one-size-fits-all rural broadband strategy that will work. Some federal grants are only available for running fiber to every household, farm, and ranch. Running fiber to a single farm or ranch is not only very expensive (latest estimates are approximately $27,000 per mile to bury fiber), it is not what farmers and ranchers really need. They need broadband access in their fields so they can farm or take care of their livestock more efficiently.
Running fiber to a school so students have access during the day is another goal expressed by many but this will not provide broadband access to students and teachers on their way to and from school or at home for homework assignments. To eliminate the digital divide, we need a plan and that plan must recognize that different types of broadband services will be best suited for different areas.
I have been recommending fiber (or microwave point-to-point) broadband to a hub in a village or town and then using one or more types of wireless broadband to distribute broadband to homes, offices, and throughout the area. I am hopeful that today, with new leadership at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and a mandate from the new administration to rebuild and revitalize much of the infrastructure that has been neglected far too long, we will see significant progress.
Planning, Funding, Partnerships
Today, there is a new push to eliminate the divide and put broadband into the hands of as many people as possible. Funds are available and more can be found, and vendors and many organizations are willing to work with others to form partnerships to build, maintain, and expand broadband systems. Certainly, there are obstacles to be overcome and perhaps changes are needed in the thought process. For example, last year the FCC announced funding for rural broadband but ONLY for 5G wireless technology. 5G may work in some areas, but there are issues with which radio spectrum is used for 5G, how much spectrum is available, how much area can be covered from a given tower, how well signals penetrate into buildings, and how signals are affected by vegetation and geography. “5G” does not always mean gigabit data speeds everywhere, and because it is the new “next big thing” does not mean it is the only wireless technology suitable for rural broadband.
What Is Needed
Rather than continuing to operate as we have, it would make more sense to create a single federal agency to oversee rural and poverty-level broadband development. Today, federal grants are issued by individual agencies based on their own criteria without any consideration for what may be deployed fifty or one-hundred miles away or to any potential partners in an area.
When we were trying to convince Congress to provide radio spectrum and funding for a nationwide broadband network for public safety (now FirstNet), we set out to identify Congressional districts with the most underserved broadband populations and organizations already serving those areas, and suggest how organizations could work together. One way we did this was to work with the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC) and small power-generation co-op companies that, at the time, provided power in portions of 47 of the 50 states.
These power co-ops have rights of way, people and trucks in the areas they serve, and are part of the community. They also have a desire to be able to use broadband services and to upgrade their meter-reading services. They make great partners for rolling out broadband services and are only one of the many types of local businesses that are and can become partners in providing broadband and Internet services.
There is a growing awareness of the benefits of “dig-once” policies. For example, when planning a major highway expansion, the plans should include burying conduit that can be used for future fiber deployments. This also applies in cities, towns, and villages. Construction planning should include considerations for what others may want to bury along the same routes.
As we move toward more automated vehicles and services that require high-speed 5G services, it makes sense to prepare for adding the wireless infrastructure and fiber backhaul they require. “Smart city” digitalization is being adopted by more cities and towns. Provisions for this and similar projects should also be included in future infrastructure updates.
Cooperation and Partnerships
Opportunities that are not contemplated or do not seem to be worth the effort are often missed opportunities. When the public-safety nationwide broadband network was signed into law, Congress seized the opportunity and required FirstNet coverage to be built out in metro, suburban, and rural areas.
How to Start
I believe Congress and the Executive Branch should create an agency, department, or some other organization to oversee coordination, planning, and funding for broadband expansion. This organization would be responsible for identifying all current funds available for grants and loans and determining how much additional funding will be needed. Then it will be able to develop a national plan that would include federal, state, and local participation.
A number of different types of partnerships can contribute to expanding broadband access to many more Americans. Consider the following:
FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has been mandated by law to provide coverage to many rural areas. Forming partnerships to augment the FirstNet build-out that permits secondary non-public-safety use on the spectrum when public safety is not using it will result in earlier distribution of coverage for rural broadband.
Many other carriers including T-Mobile and Verizon, as well as a number of smaller wireless broadband carriers, belong to the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA). The CCA and rural Internet providers including members of WISPA, private power co-ops that provide rural power in many areas across the United States, have rights of way and trucks and personnel on the ground. These organizations need broadband for command-and-control of their portion of the power grid and could easily provide broadband services to their power customers as well.
Schools, universities, medical facilities, and state and local government agencies can all play a key role in expanding broadband services. It is vitally important to plan systems; not simply require fiber to the home or farm, which is short-sighted in my estimation and does not deliver broadband both indoors and out. Once again, I believe the smart way to accomplish this is to run fiber or microwave services to a hub and then use one or more wireless technology to distribute broadband to towns and villages. All it takes is to centralize the process, establish a best-practice set of guidelines, and put together public/private partnerships.
Latest FirstNet Adoption Numbers
FirstNet (Built with AT&T) recently updated its growth numbers. Each time new numbers are released they show continued healthy growth for FirstNet. Numbers for the end of 2020 indicate that more than 15,000 agencies representing 1.9 million connections are using FirstNet. Band 14 cell-site coverage continues to increase, and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) continues to be well ahead of its five-year build-out commitment.
I believe a substantial number of agencies will move to FirstNet as a result of the latest set of FirstNet (Built with AT&T) announcements. Three major reasons numbers will increase faster in 2021 have to do first with the launch of FirstNet Band 14 MegaRange™ devices that dramatically increase Band 14 coverage. Test drives conducted by myself and a number of agencies verify that MegaRange provides up to 80-percent additional coverage to Band 14 cell sites. MegaRange devices are available today for vehicular routers, laptops, and tablets. I think a MegaRange system integrated with a vehicular router offers the best solution. The router adds a WiFi bubble around the MegaRange-equipped vehicle enabling public-safety personnel around the vehicle to extend their handheld range by connecting to the vehicle’s WiFi bubble which, in turn, connects them to the MegaRange device. This is a win-win for many public-safety agencies.
Next is the announcement that FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has teamed with NextNav and Intrepid Networks to provide z-axis (height) to existing x- and y-axis location, thus providing the ability to keep track of first responders inside buildings in major metro areas, displaying their location in three-dimensions with better accuracy than required by the FCC. Z-axis location is not yet available for incoming 9-1-1 callers, and it is only available in major metro areas, but it is a significant improvement in tracking first responders and being able to pinpoint their location inside a building if they run into problems.
A third reason for agencies to join FirstNet members concerns “Compact Radio Deployables” (CRDs). CRDs are transportable, self-contained mini-versions of the 72-plus FirstNet (Built with AT&T) Cells On Wheels (COWs).
CRD devices can be purchased or leased by local agencies, they are easily transportable, and they can be set up in a matter of minutes. The objective is to bring emergency coverage devices to agencies that would like to have their own temporary coverage capabilities, and the price point is reasonable. I will go into more detail about CRDs and z-axis location services announced by FirstNet in next week’s Advocate.
Until next week…
Andrew M. Seybold
©2021, Andrew Seybold, Inc.