There’s no question about it anymore. Whether it’s starting a new business, catching up with friends, or finding the cheapest gas station near you, the internet is essential in ways we don’t even think about until we don’t have it anymore. .
While the internet in America’s cities and suburbs has weathered the coronavirus storm, low-income Americans in rural areas have struggled to access the internet for decades. The familiar story of parents taking their children to the McDonald’s parking lot to do homework is not over yet. Too many Americans still don’t have access to the broadband they need.
But the federal government is taking steps to change the situation. The FCC’s Universal Service Fund has awarded $1 billion to deploy fiber and fixed wireless services to unserved areas through an alphabet soup of programs including ACAM, CAF, HCLS, and CAF BLS. The most notable of these is the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which auctioned off $9.2 billion in federal aid to connect 5.2 million unserved homes to high-speed broadband.
Congress is also focused on enacting a bipartisan infrastructure, investment, and jobs bill. The legislation sent states $42.45 billion to build fixed high-speed broadband. Additionally, Congress created the Affordable Connectivity Program, and he allocated $14.2 billion to reduce the cost of broadband for low-income households.
Policymakers recognize this problem and their responsibility to do something about it, and they are taking action on a bipartisan basis. This is good. But that’s not enough. All this funding is going towards one of the broadband gaps: fixed connectivity to homes.
Mobile connectivity gap remains unresolved
Another broadband gap remains unaddressed: mobile connectivity. A recent study by CostQuest suggests that 37,000 more towers are needed to speed up mobile coverage nationwide.
As the pandemic winds down and we’re all on the go, mobile broadband has become central to the daily lives of families and businesses. This is especially true in rural areas, where commuting times are long, educational opportunities are poor, and precision agriculture is needed to stay in business.
To be fair, it’s a work in progress. In 2020, the FCC allocated $9 billion to the 5G Fund, an assistance program that provides high-speed mobile connectivity to underserved Americans. But that’s only a fraction of the funding needed to close the mobile gap. And the FCC cannot move forward with its 5G fund until it completes an updated broadband coverage map, which it has been working on since 2019 and is expected to complete this fall.
So what should I do? Well, the FCC can move forward with her 5G fund. The auction model for that fund would work as the committee proposed. RDOF used a similar model and ended up costing the federal government $6.8 billion less than the FCC originally estimated. And now that Congress is working to close the fixed broadband gap, that $6.8 billion in savings could be directed to a 5G fund. The only downside is that the 5G Fund is a long-term solution. It could take several years before funding is awarded.
Private companies realize new solutions
In the meantime, private companies are offering innovative solutions. For example, AST SpaceMobile is building the first space-based cellular broadband network, which will allow existing mobile phones to move seamlessly from ground service to the company’s satellites and back. If the FCC fully approves the service, it could extend the reach of existing towers and reduce the cost of building 5G to far reaches of the United States.
Following in the footsteps of AST, SpaceX’s Starlink has just announced a technology partnership with T-Mobile to enable connectivity to mobile phones in currently inaccessible areas. Amazon’s Project Kuiper is similarly partnering with Verizon to expand the reach of its mobile network.
The advantage of these instant solutions is that they do not require detailed mapping or government funding to get started, and only require FCC permission. And while it doesn’t completely solve the problem (satellite service works much better in the cornfields of Kansas than in the forested hills of West Virginia or for crying out loud) , where it’s working well, can quickly close the mobile gap.
I remain hopeful that we can and will close the mobile gap. Just as Congress and the FCC have relied on a variety of solutions to connect every home, delivering mobile connectivity to every American will require a multifaceted approach. This means promoting government solutions like the 5G Fund, as well as private solutions that give businesses the flexibility to respond to new customers.
Connectivity is having a bipartisan moment. Let’s make it last.
Kate Forcey is a contributing researcher at the Digital Progress Institute and president and founder of KRF Strategies LLC. She has served as senior technology policy advisor to Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo and policy advisor to Public Her Knowledge. This work is exclusive to Broadband Her Breakfast.
Broadband Breakfast welcomes comments from knowledgeable observers of the broadband scene. Please send your work to firstname.lastname@example.org. The views reflected in expert opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.