Broadband access is central to the economic development of communities around the world. With a renewed focus on this priority in the U.S., Commissioner Bob Nichols places his message on the dime in this article that outlines how to get the remaining 10% served with high-speed Internet.
Conquering the Last Mile
Fifty-three percent of world’s population is still not connected to the Internet. This equates to 3.9 billion people without access to the digital engine driving the bulk of the world’s social, economic and educational advancement. Much has been said about the need to bridge this gap, but the digital divide remains a significant global challenge. We tend to think that these “have nots” are mainly located in China, Africa, or South America. It often comes as a surprise that within the borders of the United States, 39% of the rural population does not have broadband Internet access. Overall there are 34 million US citizens that still have no or sub-standard access to this basic utility that drives so much of our everyday lives.
The problem is not only in geographically rural areas, but also exists in some inner-city areas. While residents of surrounding communities have access to highspeed broadband, residents in these blighted areas often do not, as carriers do not see the return on investment for equipping them with high-speed access. Without access to the digital economy, these communities are threatened with obsolescence, experiencing an overall decrease in commercial growth, resulting in increased unemployment, persistent poverty levels, and population decline.
While lack of high-speed access in these areas is a sad reality, what makes it more frustrating is that the components to eliminate this digital divide already exist. The United States has a robust digital backbone connected directly to core Internet exchanges, which is the first component required to deliver broadband. Major carriers operate their own networks, and additionally exchange traffic with networks owned and operated by other carriers to efficiently extend network reach. “Middle mile” infrastructure – the connection between the backbone and the local distribution – is the next component required for broadband delivery, and it also already exists. The nation is crisscrossed with fiber, and technology continues to advance, allowing operators to carry more and more information on each of these thin strands of glass. While this middle mile is often underdeveloped in other parts of the world, large communications carriers and other service providers in America have been building this out for some time, and this infrastructure is capable of handling the potential traffic generated by communities that are currently off-line. The final component, “last mile connectivity” – the connection between the local distribution points and the end subscribers – is where the gap is the widest.
…what makes it more frustrating is that the components to eliminate this digital divide already exist
We certainly have the technology to cover this last mile. Wireless access, which is often the choice for sparsely populated areas, can, with recent advances in technology, meet the FCC’s 25 Mbps threshold for broadband, and its capacity is expected to increase as the technology improves and additional bandwidth becomes available. In more densely populated underserved areas, such as inner-city areas, fiber to the home might be the best choice, and this also is readily available.
If neither infrastructure nor technology are the impediments to eliminating this digital divide, what is? The answer lies in the lack of alignment of the capital resources required to build out the last mile. Some years ago the federal government allocated $2B to bring the Internet to rural areas, but much of that money remains unspent. More recently the FCC offered a major carrier multiple millions of dollars, as part of Connect America Funding, to modernize their rural markets – and the carrier turned them down. Part of the reason the money was not accepted is likely because of the restrictions associated with the money and the additional obligations the company would have incurred. While it didn’t make sense to the company to accept the money under those terms, other capable providers are ready to fill the gap. Unfortunately, those funds have not been made available to other operators who do have plans for providing broadband access to those areas. Most of the money remains unspent, and the areas remain underserved.
What’s needed is a cooperative broadband approach, where federal, state, and local funding are coordinated with private investment and innovative solutions to develop viable models with a light regulatory process that incents broadband deployment to these underserved areas. On its own, FCC funding is insufficient and the mechanism comes with too many restrictions to motivate companies to make successful investments in these areas.
The New York State’s Broadband Program Office is an example of a successful effort to coordinate local, state, and federal funding. Broadband expansion in New York wasn’t working but the NYS Broadband Program Office has developed and nurtured a coordinated approach and things are improving. Connect America funding has been added to the State program fund, which is now available to other operators that have plans for upgrading access.
Many young people are leaving rural areas and new people are concerned about moving there because the rural areas lack job opportunities. People could work from rural areas with today’s technology, but telecommuting remains a reality only for those that live in areas with ready access to affordable high-speed Internet.
Completing the last mile for rural America and blighted urban communities could breathe new life into these areas, and allow them access to the digital economy, including educational, healthcare, and social opportunities. The technology is readily available, and most of the infrastructure is already in place. Digital backbones and middle mile infrastructure pass close to almost all Americans, but without the last mile connection, many are being excluded from the opportunities that broadband access offers. It’s analogous to having a super highway pass close to your house, but having no accessible on-ramp.
While much remains to be done, broadband rollout in America certainly shouldn’t be viewed as a failure. Approximately 90% of Americans do have access to adequate broadband, and just like any other project, finishing the last 10% is the hardest. Federal, state, and local funds have been allocated to complete the rollout, and there are operators ready and willing to complete the work. What’s often lacking is the coordination of these stakeholders’ efforts.
Coordination of funding through an effective plan to align the stakeholders, technology and resources that increases the incentives and removes the barriers for private investment and operators will address the digital divide.
We must solve this problem, and it is certainly within our reach.
 FCC Broadband Progress Report identifying rural American without access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service.