American’s digital divide refers to the haves and the have-nots – in terms of high-speed broadband internet. If you live in the city, you’re probably doing just fine in terms of broadband speed. According to Ookla’s Speedtest, as of July 2021, Americans are currently getting around the 14th highest broadband speeds in the world:
Considering that the FCC considers “broadband internet” to be anything above 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up (25/3), Americans have nothing to complain about.
Unfortunately, the digital divide paints a much bleaker picture for rural America, where many people either have no access whatsoever to broadband internet, or the access is extremely limited. According to the annual FCC Broadband Deployment Report, approximately 15 million Americans have no access to broadband internet, with fully 75% of these located in rural areas. The report also states that approximately 99% of urban areas have access to 25/3 internet, while the number drops to 83% for rural areas, and 79% for tribal lands.
Tens of Millions Without Broadband Access
But the FCC’s number of 15 million is certainly grossly understated. By their own admission, the FCC uses census blocks to determine access to broadband, and if a single household in that block has access, then the entire block is considered to have broadband access. BroadbandNow Research’s stated mission statement is “to better understand the social, economic and political issues contributing to the digital divide in America. Our research focuses on topics such as digital inclusion, municipal broadband, telecom legislation, emerging technologies and the impact of broadband on everyday life.” Their report from earlier this year states that the FCC estimate is off by a solid factor of 2 – “we estimate that 42 million Americans do not have access to wired or fixed wireless broadband.”
So, the number of Americans without access to broadband internet is likely somewhere in between 21 million and 42 million. Additionally, The American Farm Bureau Federation states that “29 percent of U.S. farms have no access to the Internet according the USDA report, “Farm Computer Usage and Ownership, 2017.” And the USDA agrees with this number in their 2019 report Farm Computer Usage and Ownership which confirms that a full 25% of US farms have no internet access.
While broadband access for rural America is a very real problem in general, the Covid crisis has really demonstrated how critically needed high-speed internet access in rural areas is. In particular, rural telehealth and telemedicine (remote healthcare) require widely available broadband internet that is often not available. Additionally, remote learning also requires broadband, and the large-scale closing of schools due to the pandemic, showed many students and families resorting to using public WiFi hotspots from coffee shops and other businesses just to keep up.
And the digital divide has another problematic issue – the sunsetting or retiring of the entire 3G network by the major telcos. This certainly makes sense as infrastructure and spectrum are needed to continue building out 5G networks and maintaining major legacy networks is costly. AT&T claims that their 3G networks will be completely shut down by February 2022, and the other telcos are on similar schedules. And who will this 3G shutdown affect the most? Yup – rural America that likely relies more heavily on the older, cheaper technology.
So, it’s clear that getting broadband internet to everyone who wants (and needs) it faces some major hurdles. Building out infrastructure in remote areas is very expensive (laying cables/fiber, building ground stations, etc.) and unfortunately, much of rural America is more impoverished than their urban counterparts, so telcos have some concern about these new customers being able to afford relatively expensive internet access.
Enter the Biden Broadband Initiative.
The American Jobs Plan
According to the White House Fact Sheet,
This is the moment to reimagine and rebuild a new economy. The American Jobs Plan is an investment in America that will create millions of good jobs, rebuild our country’s infrastructure, and position the United States to out-compete China. Public domestic investment as a share of the economy has fallen by more than 40 percent since the 1960s. The American Jobs Plan will invest in America in a way we have not invested since we built the interstate highways and won the Space Race.
As stated above, The American Jobs Plan is a huge undertaking that seeks to invest some 1 trillion dollars in the future of America over the next couple of decades. The Plan, although not overly detailed, lays out some of the following long-term goals:
And while the trillion dollar price tag is still being debated in Congress, both parties seem to agree that the digital divide must be addressed in the near future and warrants many billions of dollars to facilitate this.
In fact, Biden’s Broadband Initiative allocates a cool 100 billion dollars to be invested over the next 8 years. That investment will:
This commitment to broadband internet reflects a major change in how this country views high-speed internet access. A few decades ago high-speed internet access was a luxury that allowed homes and businesses alike to interface with the digital world in a highly efficient manner. Over the next few years, this luxury morphed into critical capabilities that only broadband could provide – live video streaming, teleconferencing, etc. We seem to be at a point now where both political parties understand that broadband internet access is no longer a luxury – it should now be treated as a basic commodity absolutely necessary to be successful, whether at home, school, or business.
From the White House Fact Sheet:
Generations ago, the federal government recognized that without affordable access to electricity, Americans couldn’t fully participate in modern society and the modern economy. With the 1936 Rural Electrification Act, the federal government made a historic investment in bringing electricity to nearly every home and farm in America, and millions of families and our economy reaped the benefits. Broadband internet is the new electricity. It is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning, health care, and to stay connected.
65 Billion Dollars Broadband Investment Just Approved by the U.S. Senate
In a very rare bi-partisan showing, the U.S. Senate has just a few weeks ago approved 1 trillion dollars as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the bill will go to the House after their August recess and hopefully be signed into law this fall. The bill allocates a whopping 65 billion to be invested in our Nation’s digital infrastructure in an effort to eliminate the digital divide and bring affordable broadband internet access to 100% of Americans.
For those interested in reading the 3000 page bill (anyone? anyone? Bueller?) it can be found here. If for some reason you are not interested in reading the entire bill, summaries of the details of how the $65 billion will be spent are readily available online. Two particularly good summaries are this one by Consumer Reports and this one by Holland & Knight Law.
Here are some of their highlights:
Wireless, Satellite, and Broadband Bonding
Hopefully, this huge investment in rural broadband, and ensuring that all Americans have affordable access to broadband internet, will help bridge, or ideally, eliminate the great digital divide. But in the meantime, many tens of millions of Americans (both in the home and in the office) will still suffer with poor performing and unreliable internet, assuming they can get it at all.
Wireless broadband and satellite internet both have significant roles to play in providing high-speed internet to the masses. Wireless speeds are already very fast, and as 5G matures these speeds are expected to top 10 Gbps – 5G figures to be a real game changer. Similarly, satellite internet access is exploding – thanks largely to SpaceX’s Starlink Satellite Internet, which now boasts 90,000 users in 12 countries, and is adding many thousands of users per month.
But reliability and performance continues to be an issue for both wireless and satellite internet – the LEO orbits of the Starlink system means satellites zoom in and out of coverage as they race across the sky, and it’s not clear when, or if, SpaceX’s dream of providing global coverage will be fully realized. 5G wireless has similar issues, due to its very high frequencies, limited range, and highly directional antennas. In this case, performance and reliability issues manifest as individuals roam around cities and move in and out of particular 5G relays.
Many businesses and homes have been able to get the best of all worlds by using Broadband Bonding or Aggregation (also known as multihoming) to combine multiple, disparate broadband sources into a single, super-fast, super-reliable, high-performing internet pipe. Using a single device, such as the Truffle Broadband Bonding appliance from Mushroom Networks, businesses and residences can combine all of their broadband sources, including wired, fiber, cable, DSL, MPLS, wireless, and satellite to completely optimize your high-speed network. In fact, some of these devices actually live up their claim of “setting your network on autopilot” by real-time monitoring of all connection links and steering traffic onto the best links at any given time.
Perhaps you love the crazy high speeds your satellite internet provides, but you’re not so crazy when it drops signal completely. Using broadband bonding, the bonding device will seamlessly move traffic onto another line if the satellite link becomes unusable, even maintaining on-going sessions in the process. Or perhaps you love the convenience of your wireless broadband – at home and on-the-road – but the signal fluctuates and occasionally drops out altogether. By using a device such as the Portabella, multiple wireless connections of 3G, 4G, LTE, and 5G (even from different providers) can be aggregated and bandwidth combined and optimized for the best mobile internet available.
For Rural America, and other areas where broadband high-speed internet is spotty or unreliable, using broadband bonding to combine multiple internet connections is a great way to get truly reliable broadband internet even when the individual underlying transports are less than ideal.
Rob Stone, Mushroom Networks, Inc.
Mushroom Networks is the provider of Broadband Bonding appliances that put your networks on auto-pilot. Application flows are intelligently routed around network problems such as latency, jitter and packet loss. Network problems are solved even before you can notice.
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