Though cable operators have been leaders in delivering high-speed internet to urban and suburban communities, technological, legislative and economic obstacles have slowed their rollout of broadband to rural communities. According to NPD, over 80% of the most rural American homes currently lack access to high-speed internet (high-speed access is considered to be 25 Mbps in the downlink and 3 Mbps in the uplink).
Work, education and other aspects of people’s lives increasingly require fast, reliable internet access, and this digital divide is limiting the economic prospects and quality of life for people living in rural communities without access. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has only served to highlight this problem, as people have been required to quarantine for a sustained period of time while working, living and going to school.
Many employers – not just tech companies like Twitter, Square and Facebook – have announced extended (or permanent) work-from-home options. In addition, many students will opt or be required to take their classes through distance learning in the fall semester. COVID-19 has also accelerated the trend of commerce moving from physical stores to virtual ones. It is crucial that people living in rural communities do not get left behind in this increasingly connected, post-COVID world.
The impact of this move to a more connected economy reaches across the demographic strata. Broadband internet connectivity is no longer a luxury, but a necessity for everyone, and the entire broadband industry – including cable providers – needs to reimagine rural connectivity if we hope to close this divide as our nation works to return to a new “normal.”
Cable providers can play an important role in closing the rural digital divide – benefiting rural communities with better broadband access and themselves with higher revenues – in three important ways 1) by utilizing wireless to expand the rural availability of fixed wireless access (FWA) broadband connectivity; 2) by advocating for the modernization of the Universal Service Fund (USF) to enable its long-term sustainability; and 3) by ensuring rural connectivity delivers low latency alongside fast speeds.
Deploy Fixed Wireless Access Technologies
As a first step toward closing the rural digital divide, cable operators can use the newly available Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) and the recently auctioned C-Band frequencies with 5G NR radios to provide future-ready wireless connectivity in locations where wired broadband is difficult or there is little competition. FWA has the potential to greatly expand the ability of cable operators to deliver affordable, high-speed broadband or to increase competition in servicing more sparsely populated communities across the United States.
The adoption of wireless technologies will enable cable operators to offer broadband home connectivity to rural communities at a time when connectivity is moving from a “nice to have” to a “need to have.” In one of the few positive outcomes of COVID-19, people are starting to realize the incredible power of connectivity as both a tool for the future and as a fundamental aspect of human-to-human interaction today. Newly available wireless spectrum and technologies provide cable operators with an opportunity to cost-effectively deliver broadband connectivity to rural citizens.
Modernize the Universal Service Fund
As cable operators know all too well, accelerating access to rural home broadband has been stalled for years due to the massive costs involved in upgrading rural regions and a general lack of funding. However, by educating legislators on the need to modernize regulations governing the USF, which is administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), cable operators can address many of these funding challenges.
An update to the USF will incentivize cable operators to compete more in rural markets, which in turn will provide these rural residents with better service levels. However, cable operators need to educate legislators on the importance of making sure these incentives support long-term infrastructure implementations, not just minimally compliant solutions that cannot be improved over the upcoming decades. Uplink speed, downlink speed and latency are all important, and should not be set in stone, but should be able to be improved as new technologies emerge if we want rural broadband to properly function in the future.
By updating the USF with incentives that encourage long-term infrastructure implementations, legislators will motivate cable operators to upgrade their networks and improve their services over time. By helping legislators understand the importance of expanding incentives beyond minimal service levels, cable operators can accelerate the passage of legislation that will encourage the installation of future-proof broadband infrastructure. Such installation in turn will enable rural residents to work from home as effectively as if they were in the city – not just today, but tomorrow as well.
Deliver Low Latency
As markets mature, supply often overruns demand. In the broadband market, the drive for faster and faster speeds and for more and more capacity may follow this trend. However, there are new applications such as augmented and virtual reality that are limited not by speed but by network latency, which will become a currency of merit.
If cable operators don’t prioritize reducing latency, the networks that are being architected today will not be able to support many of the new applications of tomorrow. Technologies such as edge compute and network slicing will be needed to make the future applications work, especially for rural communities that otherwise would be limited by servers sitting hundreds of miles away. It would be unwise if, knowing what they know today, cable operators build networks that result in a new rural digital divide – one caused by high latency rather than slow speeds – in the future.
Bridging the Divide
If cable operators are able to start moving the needle on rural broadband by taking these three steps, we will see rural communities gain access to the same connectivity as their more urban counterparts. Closing the rural digital divide will help economically revitalize many of these communities and reduce or reverse the long trend of urbanization by enabling a whole new remote, rural workforce that can carry out all their job requirements from home. Companies will benefit by not needing to have much office space and by expanding their talent pool. Countries will benefit from the increase in economic activity by their citizens as well as by addressing and raising the standard of living for their entire society. And cable companies will benefit by expanding into a large, underserved market.
As everyone grapples with the possibility that working and learning from home may be a long-term reality rather than a short-term fix, minimizing the digital divide for rural users should become a priority for cable operators, especially as they seek to find new ways to increase revenues. By helping ensure that rural customers are not at a connectivity disadvantage when it comes to work or play, cable companies will do well while doing good.
Morgan Kurk is executive vice president and chief technology officer for CommScope. He has nearly 25 years of experience in the information and communication technology industries and is responsible for the company’s long-term vision and strategic direction. Morgan holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Brown University, a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan, and an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.