The digital divide

As the Covid-19 pandemic has many working and learning from home, the consequences of the “digital divide” have never been more clear.

In the U.S., 4.6 million students lack home Internet and must either miss class, venture to public Wi-Fi hotspots, or take classes in their school’s parking lot. Rural economies have struggled to adapt, as many businesses and workers are unable to transition to remote work.

Telehealth — a potentially life-saving option for elderly Americans during the pandemic — is not possible without rural broadband. This has left a lot of communities wondering if there are emerging broadband technologies that can close the digital divide in their town.

At the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI), we take a comprehensive approach to digital economic development and believe that broadband is an essential building block when it comes to establishing a strong digital economy. For this blog, we’ve put together three emerging wireless broadband technologies and looked at their advantages and drawbacks, and why we believe that even if these could be short-term solutions, communities need to keep fiber internet as their north star.

LEO satellite

Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite internet is an emerging technology that has received significant attention. On June 13, 2020 Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched 58 satellites into low earth orbit as part of the Starlink program, which aims to provide low-latency satellite internet. LEO satellite companies aim to create a constellation of satellites to provide better internet coverage than traditional communications satellites.

  • Because these satellites are closer to earth, they can provide connections with lower latency (less lag) than traditional satellite internet.
  • LEO satellite internet could potentially provide high quality internet to homes and businesses without access to cable, fiber, or reliable cellular internet.
  • While LEO satellite internet has lower latency than traditional satellite internet, the latency of LEO satellite internet will be higher than that of fiber. LEO satellite internet may not be able to meet the latency needs of consumers who use technologies such as video conferencing. The FCC recently communicated “serious doubts” that LEO satellite technology can provide adequate connectivity to compete as a “low-latency provider” in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction.
  • The hardware needed may be expensive and need frequent replacement. Unlike traditional satellite dishes, the receiver dishes for LEO satellites will have moving parts that track with the satellites in the sky. It is also unclear how well the receivers can withstand cold weather and winter storms, and how often there will be breaks in service when the receiver has to jump from one disappearing satellite to the next.
  • LEO satellites decay in orbit and need to be replaced as often as every five years. It’s possible that if this model is not profitable, companies will stop replacing their satellites, letting the service shutter.
  • Each Satellites can only handle so much traffic. Though theoretically they can provide decent speeds, at scale, we do not know if they can handle thousands of users. (This problem plagues DSL as well — a single user can usually get good speeds, but whole neighborhood can’t work off of one box).
  • Quite simply, the technology and business cases are still unproven. Several LEO companies have closed in recent months, and we don’t know how much the service will cost.

Conclusion: It is too early to tell whether LEO satellites will offer high quality, affordable broadband. If LEO satellite internet is successful and communities can immediately get better connectivity — great! Even so, the long-term viability of the service is unclear.

5G mobile internet

5G cellular internet has generated significant buzz — in part due to the promised lightning-fast speeds, and in part due to conspiracy theories connecting 5G internet to Covid-19, which led some to even light cellphone towers on fire.

5G is the next generation of cellular internet. Like with all cellular networks, smartphones or hotspots connect to different antennas and base stations as they are brought to different locations.

  • 5G is a mobile solution, so people can connect to the network outside of their homes.
  • 5G offers faster speeds, lower latency, and better reliability than 4G cellular internet.
  • The fastest 5G internet theoretically could reach download speeds of 1-10 Gbps, which is as fast as download speeds for fiber internet.
  • Not all 5G is created equal. When people talk about a 5G internet revolution, they are talking about “high-band” 5G, but 5G in rural areas will likely be based on a “low-band” frequencies, which will provide internet with lower latency than 4G networks, but only marginally faster speeds.
  • Lighting fast “high-band” 5G internet relies on small cell nodes that are only 300 to 500 feet apart. This kind of wireless internet is unlikely to be profitable – and therefore unlikely to be deployed – in less dense rural areas.
  • The potential internet speeds 5G can support are often overstated. 5G providers promote the fastest potential speeds, not the internet speeds achieved in real life. 5G signals are hindered by common physical barriers like hills, trees, and walls.
  • Overall, actual capacity for wireless users is often only 15% of the peak data connection rate, even though the peak data connection rate is the speed advertised.

Conclusion: 5G technology will likely complement, rather than replace, fiber internet solutions. The fastest 5G may not come to rural areas any time soon, so it is critical for communities to invest in their own infrastructure.

TV white space

TV white space technology has not received as much attention as 5G and LEO satellites, but for rural areas it is an especially interesting new technology.

TV white space technology uses the unlicensed TV spectrum to transmit wireless internet.

In 2012, Wilmington, North Carolina, rolled out a TV white space network to provide internet access in public parks; public officials also used the broadband for video surveillance. Microsoft is incorporating TV white space technology into its Airband Initiative, which aims to expand rural broadband access by “partnering with equipment makers, internet and energy access providers, and local entrepreneurs.”

  • Compared to traditional WiFi, TV white space signals are better able to travel farther distances and through walls, trees, and other physical barriers.
  • TV white space broadband could be particularly useful for rural areas, which have fewer TV stations and therefore more available TV white space.
  • It is unclear what kind of connectivity TV white space internet will be able to provide; speeds may be comparable to 4G cellular internet, which will not be sufficient in the long term.
  • TV white space technology may not be able to support telehealth applications, which require high definition video conferencing, which requires high-speed connections with low latency.

Conclusion: TV white space can be used to provide internet in sparse, wooded and hilly areas, but will not offer speeds that are sufficient in the long term.

A more connected future

There are many exciting new technologies that have the potential to improve connectivity and increase the number of internet options that consumers have. That being said, LEO satellite, 5G cellular, and TV white space technology aren’t going to meaningfully solve the “digital divide” in rural areas.

Only wired internet (cable — or better yet fiber), provides the capacity for rural areas to fully take advantage of the promise of the internet when it comes to learning, working, healthcare, and quality of life.

With millions of Americans working from home, the ability to work over fiber internet has become an asset that rural areas can no longer do without.

As our society continuously embraces a work-from-anywhere culture, people will eliminate areas without good infrastructure from places they consider living. So, even if you need to quickly improve connectivity this year for students and workers – don’t lose sight of the long-term need to keep working towards world-class internet for your community.

Stay connected

To learn more about the ways CORI is working to support rural America and close the digital divide, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.