Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Last week, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a report on US broadband Internet connectivity. According to the publication, 25 million residents in the country still lack access to a home broadband service. More than 19 million of these people live in rural areas of the US. FCC chairman Ajit Pai said the regulator's priority is to address this digital divide.
This is certainly a crucial goal, as broadband has become a necessity to living, in a similar way to electricity and indoor plumbing. As the FCC puts it, "broadband has gone from being a luxury to a necessity for full participation in our economy and society. Closing the digital divide is seen as a step toward shrinking the persistent gaps in economic opportunity, educational achievement and health outcomes in America".
But the problem could be significantly worse than the report estimates.
On Tuesday, at a Microsoft event in Washington DC, researchers from the Redmond company presented a contrast to the FCC data. Microsoft estimates that close to 162 million US citizens — about half the country's population — don't access the Internet at broadband speeds, defined by the FCC as of at least 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads.
In 2016, the International Telecommunications Union compiled a report that ranked the US 54th in the world when it comes to individual Internet access, with 76 percent of residents having some sort of web connectivity. This is despite many leading online services like Facebook and Google being based in the US. We believe this is at least partially owing to the expansive size of the country, where fixed-line coast-to-coast access is nearly impossible. According to the same report, it's Iceland that leads the world at close to 100 percent Internet usage.
Microsoft said it plans to address this usage gap through its Airband initiative, a programme launched in 2017 to bring broadband to 3 million rural residents by July 2022. This is 1 million more people than it initially targeted.
Connecting underserved households in the US represents goodwill as well as potential for financial gains for wireless carriers, allowing them to offer residential connectivity services just as growth in smartphone users approaches zero.
AT&T and Verizon both provide fixed wireless services using 4G, and are introducing 5G-based unlimited residential broadband. T-Mobile has its own plans, rolling out the 600 MHz of spectrum it bought in 2017 when the FCC auctioned off repurposed spectrum that had been used for broadcast TV. Although this spectrum has bandwidth limitations, it travels further and through more things than higher-band spectrum. In fact, T-Mobile's marketing name for this spectrum is Extended Range LTE.
T-Mobile claims that its 600 MHz airwaves will enable it to deliver access speeds of 100 Mbps or greater to 90 percent of the US population. This performance may not sound impressive when compared with gigabit numbers being thrown around various 5G venues, but it would make a world of difference in areas where households rely on slow and costly metred connectivity services such as satellite-based broadband.
Several countries including Costa Rica, Estonia, Finland and Spain have formally identified Internet access as a basic human right. It's like the digital equivalent of clean air. With many rural areas in the US still mired in 20th century infrastructure, the US has challenges in reaching the same ambitions. But it's certain that wireless will play a vital "last mile" role in bringing broadband Internet to remote locations where the information grid hasn't reached yet.