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Digital Divide is a Real Problem for Rural America, and Many Solutions Are Needed to Solve It

Liana Sowa

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Screenshot of Shirley Bloomfield from the webinar

October 12, 2020 – The digital divide is a real problem for rural America, Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA, the Rural Broadband Association, said on Thursday at the Blandin Foundation’s conference on broadband.

“People in Washington like to talk about the digital divide, those who have connectivity and those who are still waiting for it,” just as they discuss electricity, Bloomfield said.

But she said she sees most of America served by large corporations that follow where the money is, and rural areas are often left with providers that are smaller, but still faithfully serve their communities.

And in the environment in which the coronavirus pandemic has changed so much, instead of seeing spikes in broadband usage throughout the day, we now see that “spike” going all day long, Bloomfield said. This trend will only continue, she said.

Bloomfield endorsed the need for funding for broadband mapping and deployment. She praised the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund decision to go forward even amid less-than-adequate broadband maps.

She also recognized the role of Department of Agriculture ‘s ReConnect program.

And while she said fiber was the preferred technology, wireless is still a good short-term solution for those who had nothing. The recent Citizens Broadband Radio Service auction may spur on more such developments.

Even without federal funding, several solutions have and should proceed forward with broadband deployments. For example, in North Dakota, the state worked with Dakota Carrier Network, splitting up the areas that needed coverage between the companies. “This is one of the best ways to make sure the communities aren’t left behind,” she said.

Larger companies are building fiber networks in some of these rural areas but they’re only doing it for 5G backhaul, she said. It would be better if those companies could also be incentivized to build the fiber out directly to customers at the same time they were building backhaul fiber.

She also said that she was “extraordinarily bullish about telemedicine.”

Since the outset of COVID, many of the usual telemedicine restrictions, such as the inability to practice across state borders, have been removed, increasing the umbrella of patient care.

Rural areas should focus on their health clinics because they provided one-size-fits-all  care, she suggested. They could help be an intermediary institution for people too afraid of going to a hospital packed with people.

Reporter Liana Sowa grew up in Simsbury, Connecticut. She studied editing and publishing as a writing fellow at Brigham Young University, where she mentored upperclassmen on neuroscience research papers. She enjoys reading and journaling, and marathon-runnning and stilt-walking.

Universal Service

Experts Concerned About Connectivity After Emergency Broadband Benefit Fund Runs Dry

Derek Shumway

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Screenshot taken from CCA event

April 1, 2021 – Experts are concerns about the long-term implications of the $3.2-billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program (EBB) running out of money without a plan for what happens after.

The fund, created by Congress in December, provides up to $50 in a monthly internet discount for families and $75 for tribal lands to access broadband internet. The fund will cease when all the money is used up or within six months, whichever happens sooner.

Clare Liedquist Andonov, principal at Herman and Whiteaker, LLC, said Wednesday during the CCA mobile carriers show that if all people on Lifeline — an older FCC program that provides monthly discounts for eligible low-income subscribers for internet and telephone services – subscribe to the fund, the money will “be exhausted within about four months.”

John Nakahata, partner at Harris, Wiltshire and Grannis LLP, said both the EBB and Emergency Connectivity programs are simply short-term stimulus plans that are not designed to last long.

Andonov said she is concerned about what happens after such funding ceases to exist. “What happens after four months?” she asked. “Do you disconnect those people?” She said the infrastructure built to connect people online in the first place would go to waste if the EBB program ceased operations in a matter of months, alongside the administrative costs to run the program.

To combat the expenditure of EBB funding in the mere four months projected by Andonov, Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-MN), co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, and House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-SC, introduced comprehensive bicameral broadband infrastructure legislation on March 12 to expand access to affordable high-speed internet for all Americans.

“In 2021, we should be able to bring high-speed internet to every family in America — regardless of their zip code,” said a press release from Klobuchar’s office. “This legislation will help bridge the digital divide once and for all.” If passed, Cole said it would allow the EBB program to last for an entire year; but even then, one year is not enough, they say, as broadband should be accessible for people indefinitely.

To address this challenge, there is some $100 billion set for recently-introduced broadband infrastructure bills being considered in Congress. That money is spread between three bills that would change the nation’s definition of served and unserved people with broadband by dramatically upping the threshold for broadband speeds.

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Rural

Invest In Local Communities, Center on Rural Innovation Urges Telecom Companies

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Matt Dunne from the webinar

March 11, 2021 – The Center on Rural Innovation is recommending telecom companies engage with local communities and invest in hyper-local programs.

Speaking at the second general session of the National Rural Broadband Association last month, Matt Dunne, executive director at the Center on Rural Innovation, said broadband players can power digital economies by investing in shared office spaces and accelerator programs like that of Springfield, Vermont’s.

He said providing in-kind bandwidth and Wi-Fi routers would go to supporting the local community.

He advocated for promoting tech culture initiatives for customers and encouraged broadband players to have a bigger role in being involved in the community as a friendly player.

Springfield has partnered with Black River Innovation Campus to build a digital entrepreneurship program and campus powered by 10 gigabit per second (Gbps) speed broadband.

Catered to the Vermont lifestyle, Black River offers programs and certificates that teach about remote work, local workforce development, and youth coding clubs and camps.

In addition to promoting digital workforce resources and culture building, Black River has produced two startups which the Center on Rural Innovation Fund has made investments in since its beginning.

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Rural

Debate About Fiber Versus Wireless for Rural Broadband Deployments Continues to Percolate

Tim White

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Screenshot from Broadband Breakfast Live Online

March 4, 2021 – Amid claims that the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund chose winners that may not be able to fulfill their broadband commitments, Vantage Point CEO Larry Thompson said his whitepaper contributing to the discussion wasn’t intended to be critical but to figure out what’s best for quick deployment.

During Fiber Broadband Association’s event on Wednesday, Thompson clarified his whitepaper, which this publication covered in a story on Wednesday, wasn’t intended to be criticize what does or doesn’t work, but to examine what is the “right tool for the job.” He noted that part of the consideration is how much bandwidth consumers will need years down the road, not just now.

The paper effectively doubted the claim that fixed-wireless technologies can deliver gigabit speeds in rural areas. The prevailing and predominant thought in the industry is that a direct fiber line is indispensable for the fastest speeds. Fixed-wireless instead uses radio frequency technologies to deliver broadband to the home for the last mile.

“There are significant technical (and related economic) questions that must be confronted in delivering Gigabit broadband using fixed wireless technologies in the predominantly rural areas covered by RDOF,” the paper read.

“Fixed wireless networks will face difficult, if not insurmountable, challenges to provide RDOF Gigabit services in very select circumstances when attempting to service distant, non‐town rural subscribers that were primarily the subject of the RDOF auction,” the paper reads.

Those claims have spilled-over into a full-blown public event, with the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association responding to critics of the FCC’s choice for recipients of the $9.2 billion RDOF fund, which was determined based on a lowest-bidder reverse auction model.

Thompson’s clarification came on the same day that Broadband Breakfast’s Live Online debate considered RDOF and the opportunities and challenges with both fiber and fixed-wireless technologies.

The criticism of the wireless beneficiaries of RDOF was met with resistance.

Brian Regan, vice president of legal, policy and strategy at Starry Inc., an RDOF winner, said there will always be criticism of the process after the fact.

He also expressed faith in the FCC’s ability to manage the front end of the auction and reward the money to the right bidders.

FiberSmith’s CEO Donny Smith agreed with Regan, saying that the RDOF auction was controversial because there was so much money involved. At the end of the day, RDOF will bring more broadband to more Americans, which is a good thing, he said.

Regan said Starry is focused on expanding broadband to as many people as possible, and sees the new funding as an “effective solution to bring service to places where it doesn’t exist.”

Fixed-wireless can achieve gigabit connections with the latest tests from 5G providers, he said.

Winning an FCC auction is just the first step, and the panelists discussed the design and development of expanding broadband into rural areas.

Wireless broadband is not a permanent solution, Smith said, but can be much more cost effective.

But mapping data needs to be accurate, Smith and Regan said. Before networks can be built, Regan said there needs to be accurate broadband mapping data so we know where they’re needed and what can be built.

Good geographic information system data vital to planning and executing networks

Having good geographic information system data is vital to building a broadband network, agreed Sandeep Dhingra, chief technology officer of network services at Sterlite Technologies Limited, which has years of experience building broadband infrastructure outside the United States.

Dhingra also highlighted the importance of digitizing and automating the GIS to keep accurate data. Companies need to do it right the first time so that they are not redoing things over and over, he said.

He also said that every network is ultimately a hybrid of both wired and wireless infrastructure, because fiber or cable must be laid to reach the towers that send out wireless signals.

Smith raised a potential issue with materials and labor, which are in limited supply, especially right now with COVID-19. If companies haven’t planned ahead for these logistics, they’re going to have problems down the road, he said.

The FCC stipulated that RDOF winners are required to have service up and running for at least 40 percent of their winning coverage area within three years, and 20 percent additional coverage each subsequent year, reaching full service within six years.

Some inefficiencies can be mitigated with effective design and planning, Dhingra said. He mentioned using drones for surveying and utilizing local manpower as two examples.

Another challenge can be dealing with state and local municipalities, Smith said. While some local authorities will bend over backwards to help you out because they see the value of getting better broadband to their residents, other authorities will do everything in their power to make your work more difficult, he said.

As tensions rise between local governments and telecom companies about attached to poles, companies need to build relationships with local municipalities as much as possible so that they both understand their shared goals, Dhingra added.

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