If you were to google “how to close the digital divide,” you would not come up empty-handed. As a quick precursor, for those of you who may be unfamiliar, the digital divide refers to the inequalities in finances, education and social status faced by those without computers and access to the internet versus those who do. Because having equal access to digital technology is at the core of the divide, broadband availability, or the lack thereof, has become a highly publicized and debated topic between politicians and telecommunications companies (telcos) alike. Nevertheless, the divide still remains and arguably will continue to remain unless the following five steps are taken.
Step 1: Redirect Federal Funding Distribution
The federal government has allocated and continues to allocate ample funding toward closing the digital divide. Consequently, over the past 20 years, we’ve been able to raise broadband standards considerably, at least in urban and suburban markets. Unfortunately, however, the majority of these funds are awarded to major telcos and incumbent providers, and without a guaranteed long-term revenue case in rural America, they have minimal incentive to invest in new infrastructure or to improve current infrastructure. While this may make sense for their personal bottom lines, it does not benefit the American public. So, if large telcos can’t or won’t service rural America, who will?
First, if you have an option to buy from a small local provider, do so — you will consequently be supporting your local economy. However, the problem with totally relying on the little guys is that they are, in fact, the little guys, and often don’t have access to or the power to access the spectrum of state-of-the-art equipment or fiber assets that enable other providers to offer competitive, cost-effective and high-bandwidth solutions.
Another option is the middle road between mom-and-pop and the incumbent providers — the mid-sized internet service provider. As it currently stands, mid-sized ISPs do not have the financial resources of big telcos to build out low-cost products with long return on investment, thus making them less competitive for consumers. However, if granted adequate funding to build out infrastructure, these mid-sized telcos have the opportunity to give the mega-ISPs true competition, ultimately keeping the market honest, fair and favored toward the public’s best interest.
Step 2: Open The Airwaves, Fairly
As it currently stands, today’s major cellular companies hold the vast majority of wireless spectrum allotted by the FCC to resolve the digital divide. These services, while important, do not currently deliver the entire bandwidth necessary to meet the needs of all unconnected Americans. However, the United States still has ample wireless spectrum available. If the FCC and Capitol Hill can appropriate these assets to companies that truly support the public’s best interest, and said companies utilize and deploy intelligently, the utopian idea of one day delivering one-gigabit speeds to every home in America is possible.
Step 3: Implement A True Accountability Structure
On February 12, 2018, the White House released the Legislative Outline for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America. The outline, which acknowledges the horrific state of the nation’s current infrastructure, demonstrates the new administration’s framework, meant to build a better future for all Americans. To its credit, there is a handful of positive action items presented in the outline. From empowering individual state decision-making, to establishing true accountability structures, to expediting and streamlining overall permitting and federal agency processes, at its core, the outline perceivably serves in the general best interest of the American public.
However, it can also be argued that there are inherent and massive flaws in the outline that will ultimately prevent these goals from reaching fruition. For example, past the inadequate division of funding, there is not a clear timeline of when all legislation changes must take effect. Therefore, even though once these changes are enacted there is a 24-month timeline, there isn’t a clear delineation of an official launch date. To paint an extreme example, this outline could have us all sitting here in five or 10 years still spewing on initiatives that could be and could make a better future. Thus, the administration needs to follow up its outline with immediate deadlines in order to formalize proposed accountability structures.
Step 4: Expedite The Use Of Federal Lands
As touched upon above, the idea of expediting processes has been proposed. However, even if we could ensure grant winners would build out as planned, the fact remains that 28% of the U.S. is federally owned, and many of these sites are in areas we need to get through or use for broadcast areas. It’s imperative we support operators’ build times by expediting permitting the use of federal lands sooner than later, and preferably now.
Step 5: Adopt A Technology-Agnostic Hybrid Approach
While states and communities across the country continue to request fiber optic networks, the reality is that building out fiber infrastructure to every location in America is both cost- and time-prohibitive. Therefore, fiber is not the complete solution if we’re aiming to close the divide in a timely manner. The solution, rather, lies in adapting and building out technology-agnostic hybrid networks. From fiber, to fixed wireless, to 4G and 5G LTE, all of these technologies have their time and place in closing the divide. While there are pros and cons to each method, when used together, they have the ability to create a complete solution that can deliver gigabit and multi-gigabit bandwidth to both urban and ultra-rural communities.
So, If We Know How, Why Is There Still A Divide?
The answer is simple: lack of action. We know the course; now we need to implement. Therefore, to all of those reading this who feel inspired or compelled to truly take part in closing the divide, reach out to your local and state municipalities, and demand action.