Author(s): Raghu Gopal
On Monday, US telecom service provider AT&T announced the expansion of its LTE-based fixed wireless Internet service for rural and underserved areas to eight new states. Like running water and electricity, Internet access is recognised as a necessity for modern living and the US government is supporting the introduction of broadband services to areas currently not served by fixed-line providers.
AT&T launched its fixed wireless service in the state of Georgia in April 2017 and is now extending it to select areas in the states of Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Louisiana. The company expects to deliver the service in 18 states by the end of 2017.
AT&T's fixed-wireless offering provides download speeds of up to 10 Mbps and 160GB of data per month at a price of $70 per month or $60 on a contract. Each additional gigabyte costs $10. Users must have an external fixed antenna installed outside their home or business, often placed on the roof or side of the structure. The installation fee is $99. The offering may be more expensive than traditional fixed-line services such as cable and DSL, which usually allow unmetered broadband access, but it's a bargain when compared with other LTE broadband services or satellite, which cost about $60 for 10GB of data.
AT&T is able to offer the service to subscribers at below-market rates thanks to a project by the US Federal Communications Commission, called Connect America Fund. The programme awards funding to providers that can deliver broadband services to areas of the country stamped as underserved. The minimum requirements for service include download speeds of 10 Mbps and an allotment of 150GB of data per month. Rates are not specified but should be comparable to costs for fixed broadband in urban areas.
Like many governments around the world, US authorities recognise that Internet access is a necessity for individuals and businesses to become participating members of modern society. The commission states on its Web site that "Broadband has gone from being a luxury to a necessity for full participation in our economy and society — for all Americans".
AT&T will receive almost $500 million as part of the Connect America Fund. In total, the commission is granting $1.7 billion in funding to the 10 fixed-line and wireless providers taking part in the initiative to make high-speed Internet available to 4 million additional residences and businesses. The government is offering funding of $425 for each potential rural broadband connection through the programme, but the effective amount will be much higher.
Providing Internet access to the unconnected has become a mission in the US and internationally. Governments are working with providers, giving them incentives to extend their services to rural areas.
Recently, companies like Alphabet and Facebook have experimented with balloons and drones to spread the use of the Internet. For them, connecting the next billion means unlocking the next billion customers. It will take unconventional techniques to expand access further, but unless there's government intervention, rural areas of the US are likely to fall behind in gaining Internet connectivity.