Ken Mills is the CEO of EPIC IO, IntelliSite, and Broad Sky Networks; providing AI-enabled IoT Solutions with best-in-class connectivity.
As the pandemic fades and the public sector reopens, the new normal will be characterized by the widespread belief that high-quality broadband connectivity is an essential public service. During the pandemic, the internet enabled remote workers, homebound students and cautious consumers to collaborate, connect and deliver needed goods and services. Researchers expect this to continue. Yet, the crisis highlighted the stubborn persistence of broadband “dead zones” and digital deserts.
Consider the range of essential functions we routinely perform online, including banking, shopping, education and, of course, remote work. Smart communities providing an increasing number of digitalized services can’t afford to exclude any local resident from accessing these benefits through the internet. In the public sector, services once offered in-person — judicial court proceedings, board hearings, permit review and licensing, certification and renewals, tax payments and benefit distribution, utility coverage and resource management — are also moving online.
However, for reasons of economics, geography, demographics, age or background, many are finding themselves excluded from full participation. Seniors, for example, recently found it difficult to navigate websites to obtain Covid-19 vaccine appointments or other healthcare via telemedicine services. Researchers determined that nearly 17 million students experienced a “homework gap” last year, falling behind in schoolwork due to the digital divide. Analysts currently believe 1 in 3 U.S. households lack reliable access to high-quality broadband service, a service gap that exists within urban areas characterized by public-private investment in telecom infrastructure. It’s not an isolated problem for underserved rural communities.
Connecting Every Digital Citizens With Digital Servicesorking together, there are several strategies that will help eradicate the country’s digital deserts, ensuring full participation for every 21st century digital citizen. Here are five far-reaching approaches that will transform broadband access throughout the country.
1. Improve Data GatheringThis year, the FCC has begun to modernize its programs, including E-Rate subsidies to make high-speed broadband accessible for economically challenged households. But the FCC’s data-gathering informs a range of federal policy choices. Its latest report that estimated 19 million Americans lack broadband access was widely criticized as inaccurate. In contrast, Broadband Now Research’s report combined a lack of telecom infrastructure in rural communities and dead zones in urban areas, estimating 42 million excluded consumers.
Good policies can’t result from bad maps. Before the FCC awards federal monies and grants, policymakers should consult trusted, fine-grained maps of broadband availability. To obtain more accurate data, the FCC must change its Form 477 rule that allows carriers to claim an entire census block has broadband access if it contains a single subscribing address.
Integrate Fast Wireless Connectivity With Public Transportation Time spent commuting need not be wasted. Technical improvements in signal strength, speed and bandwidth of wireless routers have greatly evolved in the last few years, making fast, secure Wi-Fi service available for every commuter, whether they’re using school buses, public transit, city subways or interurban trains.
Smart investments by city agencies in wireless infrastructure would build out private LTE networks on public fleets. Educators can deploy mobile hotspots for students, similar to bookmobiles, for school buses outfitted with local broadband connectivity for use on school grounds, libraries, farmers markets, neighborhood parks, community centers or other public sites. Additionally, bipartisan legislation to allocate additional FCC funding for schools seeking to invest in school bus Wi-Fi for distance learners is moving through Congress, with approval expected later this fall.
Define National Service StandardsJust as every parent knows good schools make communities desirable, smart community residents know that online K-12 testing and performance assessments have heightened the need for quality broadband connectivity. This need, also driven by e-learning, online research and online collaboration for student success, will continue long after schools reopen.
Currently, the FCC benchmarks standards for the acceptable speed to transfer a megabit of data per second (bps) over the internet. Industry experts bemoan these minimum requirements currently equal to download speeds of 25 Mbps and 3 Mbps for uploads. To keep pace with the need for streaming data or households running multiple devices simultaneously, from what I’ve seen in the industry, people are calling for connectivity plans and infrastructure capable of providing download speeds up to 200 Mbps and upload speeds up to 50 Mbps. This enables high-quality internet service in rural or underserved areas and also works as a failover/backup standard for fixed wireless installations.
Plan For Failover And RedundancyTo guarantee high-quality, widely available broadband service, it’s crucial to improve existing infrastructure as well as expanding the network. Consider the consumer or public official dealing with online services that have built-in deadlines or time constraints. Extreme weather events, natural disasters, construction mishaps or connectivity outages caused by ISPs can lead to network downtime that may be just as disruptive as digital deserts. Investing in redundant infrastructure is a simple, cost-effective solution. One option? Users should make certain their carriers have backup internet plans, switching over to another carrier when outages strike.
Or, public sector organizations can borrow a page from corporate clients and request “always-on” 4G/LTE wireless connectivity. Also called failover service, this provides a different path to the internet and can’t be physically cut, like wireline circuits. Wireless infrastructure can be installed much more quickly than DSL or cable service, enabling redundant protection within days instead of months. This approach also creates a streamlined path to upgraded 5G connectivity when that becomes more widely available.
Streamline State And Local Control All fifty states have directors, state agencies or task forces to consult on broadband deployment and funding. Any federal spending should be coordinated through these local organizations, as they possess the clearest sightline into underserved communities. These stakeholders are best positioned to gather community feedback, expand broadband networks, negotiate public-private partnerships and carry out project timelines and reviews.
Ultimately, the task of transforming digital deserts into information highways depends on finding the appropriate devices, infrastructure and platforms while leveraging the training and knowledge to use this essential service to its fullest ability.