Editor’s Note: Several months ago, Drew Clark’s column from the Deseret News of Salt Lake City, Utah, touched upon some of the important parallels between the most prominent infrastructure investment of the 20th Century – electricity – and the emerging essential fiber-optic infrastructure of the 21st Century. With increased discussion about the significant of the applications that run Gigabit Networks, including the upcoming Broadband Communities Conference in Lexington, Kentucky, it is reprinted here.
SALT LAKE CITY — It’s easy to plug a refrigerator, television, alarm clock or toothbrush into a wall socket. We forget the lesson that electricity became widely available only after a single application — the light bulb — caught the imagination and desire of the public.
Electricity is history. Today we face the next-generation infrastructure: gigabit networks. Global visionaries here in Utah see the need for these communication networks, even as they struggle to explain the “light bulb” that will make it plain why a super-fast Internet network is as necessary as running water and a universal electric grid.
One of these visionaries is Glenn Ricart, an unassuming man who moved his family here from the East Coast 20 years ago. The late Ray Noorda recruited him as chief technology officer at Novell. A renowned technologist, Ricart set up the first Internet exchange point at the University of Maryland in 1986. Two years ago, he was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame.
Ricart’s recent energies have been devoted to co-founding an ambitious venture known as US Ignite. Its goal is next-generation applications with “transformative public benefit.”
What are those? Of the 476 technologies submitted to US Ignite, none have yet emerged as the light bulb thatwill answer skeptics who believe a few megabits of connectivity should be enough to satisfy anyone’s need for Internet movies, music and email.
They include real-time emergency response systems, air pollution monitoring, collaborative virtual reality surgery and analyses of traffic congestion. US Ignite is particularly keen on applications that advanceeducation and workforce, energy, health care, public safety, transportation and advanced manufacturing.
Launched with a jump-start by the White House and the National Science Foundation in 2012, US Ignite is now a full-fledged national nonprofit organization. It leaves the design, construction and operation of next-generation fiber-optic networks to others. Its mission is finding that innovative application (think light bulbs) that everyone is going to need … as soon as it is invented.
Here in Utah, we have the privilege of a front-row seat on a new project Ricart touts as the next phase of US Ignite.
It’s called Utah Ignite, and it’s one of 12 urban hubs where gigabit connectivity is plentiful. Ours is centered around Salt Lake City and Utah Valley.
The other gigabit hubs include Kansas City, the place that Google Fiber selected to launch its mantra “think big with a Gig;” plus Austin, Texas; Lafayette, Louisiana; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Cleveland, Ohio. There, the nonprofit group OneCommunity transformed Cleveland and Northeast Ohio through collaborations between hospitals and universities to deploy extensive fiber-optic capacity.
Speaking at a recent launch event of Utah Ignite at Utah Valley University (the University of Utah is also playing a founding role), Ricart noted that Utah was the westernmost gigabit hub. Even though Seattle, Portland and San Francisco were interested in joining, “they don’t have the same kind of penetration [of gigabit fiber] that exists in Utah,” he said.
Indeed, of roughly 200 cities and communities with gigabit networks, about 5 percent are along the Wasatch Front. That’s one reason why Utah’s broadband is among the best in the nation.
Utah Ignite and the other gigabit hubs will provide a proving ground needed to search for breakthrough developments. And as with Thomas Edison’s bulbs, the quest isn’t merely about innovation — it’s about understanding a dynamic marketplace that includes needs of the civic, educational/nonprofit and consumer sectors.
For example, one powerful gigabit application turns plain old electric systems into a “smart grid” that enhances energy conservation and saves money for consumers and businesses. Indeed, Chattanooga leveraged its “smart grid” into a full-fledged fiber-optic network for businesses and individuals.
Additionally, says Ricart, “the Utah tech economy is boosted from startups and new companies we attract to create and deploy these applications. Utah will become a net exporter of smart gigabit city technologies to other states and nations.”
One impressive example of the power of gigabit fiber technology comes from Reid Robison, a BYU graduate who is CEO of Tute Genomics based in Provo. “It used to take me days to download a genome from the lab, before I could even start to analyze it,” he wrote.
But now, “I can download a whole human genome in less than half an hour. That is a huge difference when someone’s health is on the line. … In order to realize the promise of rapid genome sequencing in the [intensive care unit], we need gigabit Internet connections on both ends.”
Utah Ignite could play a pivotal role in finding other such “light bulbs.” That’s why it’s vital for our tech sector, our universities and our cities to sit up and take notice.
Drew Clark is the Chairman of the Broadband Breakfast Club. He tracks the development of Gigabit Networks, broadband usage, the universal service fund and wireless policy @BroadbandCensus. He is also Of Counsel with the firm of Best Best & Krieger LLP, with offices in California and Washington, DC. He works with cities, special districts and private companies on planning, financing and coordinating efforts of the many partners necessary to construct broadband infrastructure and deploy “Smart City” applications. You can find him on LinkedIN, Google+ and Twitter. The articles and posts on BroadbandBreakfast.com and affiliated social media are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.
Rosenworcel Hails FCC’s Efforts on Mapping, Said Country Needs More Wi-Fi Access
Rosenworcel also emphasized spectrum policy and getting connectivity to low-income Americans.
WASHINGTON, October 27, 2021 – Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said Friday she is optimistic about the agency’s direction on new broadband mapping efforts and said the testing of the project has produced the best wireless coverage map in the country.
Speaking at the Marconi Society Symposium Friday, Rosenworcel said the mapping efforts are part driven by crowdsourced methods that she credited as a valuable way to ensure the maps are as accurate as possible.
The new maps are a product of the Broadband DATA Act, which is set to expand mapping efforts to make them more precise. The current mapping method, which uses Form 477 data, has led some companies to bid for federal funding in areas that are already served. The FCC is currently cleaning up the results of the $9.2 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund due to those errors.
Rosenworcel emphasizes spectrum policy
Additionally, Rosenworcel emphasized the need to improve spectrum policy. She suggested that this take place by making sure consumers benefit from competitive FCC auctions and placing more Wi-Fi access in locations where licensed airwaves see low usage.
Industry experts at the event stressed challenges that must be addressed in order to expand broadband access, such as the fact that low-income individuals will often reject offers to receive free internet. This happens because the individuals think that a free service will be low quality or that they will be tricked into paying for the service in the future.
During one panel, professor Margaret Martonosi of Princeton University explained the importance of realizing that utility functions present in rich and poor service markets are different, meaning that the appetite for internet service in richer communities is different from the appetite in poorer ones.
Catherine McNally: The Digital Divide is an Equality Issue
To work toward equal access, more affordable options must be created, including community-based solutions.
Per the latest U.S. Census numbers, about one in four American households is stuck without internet. And a quarter million people with home internet still listen to the dial up screech when they hop online.
The majority of folks lacking home internet live in states with large rural populations and high rural poverty rates, like Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama.
In Mississippi, as an example, 60% of homes don’t have broadband, satellite or dial up. And 53% of the state’s population is considered rural with a rural poverty rate of 23%.
Limited options and slow speeds top the list of reasons why rural states are home to high numbers of disconnected households. But steep costs are the most imminent barrier to home internet in rural areas.
According to a 2020 report on worldwide internet pricing by Cable.co.uk, the U.S. is the most expensive country for internet out of all developed Western nations. Here, internet costs an average of $60 a month. Internet in the cheapest country, Ukraine, costs an average of $6.40 a month.
Digital divide deep dive: Issaquena County, Mississippi
Issaquena County is Mississippi’s least-connected county with only 20% of homes paying for an internet connection. The median income there is $14,154 per individual in 2019, compared to a $31,133 national median income. The overall poverty rate in the county is 29%, which is about 16% higher than the U.S. as a whole.
That is a glaring contrast to the most-connected county in the most-connected state: Morgan County, Utah. Morgan County is home to 95% of households with an internet connection, the median individual income there was $37,091 in 2019 and the overall poverty rate is 3%.
Residents of Issaquena County are lucky if they can get download speeds of 25 Mbps, which is the Federal Communication Commission’s current definition of “high speed internet.” The slowest speeds available, 5–12 Mbps, are barely enough to stream in HD, let alone connect to a Zoom call.
If we narrow down our view to Valley Park, a town of just over 100 people in Issaquena County, we see that some residents have the option of a single AT&T DSL internet plan.
The AT&T plan costs $660 a year for speeds of 25 Mbps, which barely keep up with critical modern-day online tools like online learning and telehealth.
Our case study of Issaquena County and Valley Park, Mississippi, highlights further opportunities tied to home connectivity and equality:
- Access to online learning. About 23.7% of Issaquena County residents have obtained a high school degree, while 3.2% have no schooling. Online education allows individuals to expand their knowledge and further their careers.
- Greater access to livable wages.5% of residents earn a household income of $10k or less. This is further divided by race: In 2019, Black and African American residents earned a median household income of $21,146, while white residents earned a median household income of $52,188.
- More employment opportunities. The employment rate in Issaquena County has steadily declined since 1990. Now, 10.6% of residents are considered unemployed.
- Better access to health care. The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration found that half of Mississippi’s residents live in counties with more than 2,000 patients per primary care physician. Issaquena County has been designated a Medically Underserved Area since 1978, meaning the county has a shortage of primary care, dental and/or mental health providers. Better access to telehealth also enables residents who cannot make the drive to the nearest hospital or clinic.
Solving the digital divide
To work toward equal access, more affordable options must be created. The Emergency Broadband Benefit fund is one option, but it remains largely untapped by American households. Subsidies like Lifeline may also lower barriers to internet access, but participation remains low.
Community-focused solutions are likely a better answer, such as Land O’Lakes’s American Connection Project. The project opened more than 2,800 free public Wi-Fi locations in spots like the Tractor Supply Store in Spooner, Wisconsin, in order to keep farming communities connected.
Also significant is this year’s infrastructure bill, which calls on states to determine localized needs and strategies for improving affordability and access to the internet.
State sponsored projects may also solve the severe lack of competition between U.S. broadband services. This should reduce costs last-mile providers incur to connect to middle-mile networks, which could, and should, pass savings down to households. Case in point: California recently introduced an open access middle-mile project with the goal of providing nondiscriminatory access. The bill passed unanimously.
A modernized definition of what qualifies as “high speed internet” would also benefit rural households. Currently, the standard of 25 Mbps download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds shorts rural users of opportunities tied to telehealth, online learning and remote work.
This outdated definition allows service providers to complete minimum-viable network expansions and mark areas as “connected.” It also de-incentivizes providers to improve existing-but-subpar networks, such as the 10 Mbps DSL line I found offered in nearby Morton, Mississippi.
One thing is clear: The way the U.S. has approached internet access in the past does not work. New strategies and policies are required to repair the digital divide. Internet access is a right, not a privilege in today’s world.
Catherine McNally is an Editorial Lead for Reviews.org, where she reviews internet service providers across the US. She has a passion for using data to highlight the need for better internet access across the US and believes that internet is a critical lifeline in today’s world. She has also published speed test and pricing reports to help everyday consumers make informed decisions. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.
Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to email@example.com. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.
National Non-Profit to Launch Joint Initiative to Close Broadband Affordability and Homework Gap
EducationSuperHighway is signing up partners and will launch November 4.
WASHINGTON, October 18, 2021 – National non-profit Education Super Highway is set to launch a campaign next month that will work with internet service providers to identify students without broadband and expand programs that will help connect the unconnected.
On November 4, the No Home Left Offline initiative will launch to close the digital divide for 18 million American households that “have access to the Internet but can’t afford to connect,” according to a Monday press release.
The campaign will publish a detailed report with “crucial data insights into the broadband affordability gap and the opportunities that exist to close it,” use data to identify unconnected households and students, and launch broadband adoption and free apartment Wi-Fi programs in Washington D.C.
The non-profit and ISPs will share information confidentially to identify students without broadband at home and “enable states and school districts to purchase Internet service for families through sponsored service agreements,” the website said.
The initiative will run on five principles: identify student need, have ISPs create sponsored service offerings for school districts or other entities, set eligibility standards, minimize the amount of information necessary to sign up families, and protect privacy.
The non-profit said 82 percent of Washington D.C.’s total unconnected households – a total of just over 100,000 people – have access to the internet but can’t afford to connect.
“This ‘broadband affordability gap’ keeps 47 million Americans offline, is present in every state, and disproportionately impacts low-income, Black, and Latinx communities,” the release said. “Without high-speed Internet access at home, families in Washington DC can’t send their children to school, work remotely, or access healthcare, job training, the social safety net, or critical government services.”
Over 120 regional and national carriers have signed up for the initiative.
The initiative is another in a national effort to close the “homework gap.” The Federal Communications Commission is connected schools, libraries and students using money from the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which is subsidizing devices and connections. It has received $5 billion in requested funds in just round one.
- Sinema Policy Advisor Says Infrastructure Bill’s Broadband Promise Balances Partisan Interests
- Rosenworcel Hails FCC’s Efforts on Mapping, Said Country Needs More Wi-Fi Access
- FCC Orders China Telecom to Stop Providing Services in the U.S. Over National Security Concerns
- Verizon, Amazon Partner on Broadband, Farmers Need Broadband, Social Work Important to Close Digital Divide
- FCC Announces Additional Details From Second Wave, Additional Money for First Wave, of Emergency Connectivity Fund
- Biden Nominates Rosenworcel as FCC Chair, Sohn as 5th Commissioner and Alan Davidson as NTIA Head
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