Four ways to bridge the digital divide

According to the FCC, 18.3 million people lack access to broadband and 14.4 million of those live in rural areas. Data from private sources indicates that the numbers could be much higher; Microsoft says roughly half of all Americans do not use the internet at "broadband speeds." The COVID-19 pandemic has of course highlighted this inequity since many of us need the internet to access work, school, and applications for federal assistance.

Now the federal government is appropriating billions to try to bridge the digital divide, and various veterans of the wireless industry are promoting alternative approaches. Below are four initiatives that could move the needle.

1. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund

The RDOF represents more than $20 billion of federal money for service providers that connect underserved rural areas. The bulk of this money is expected to go to fiber providers, as the FCC has excluded fixed wireless from the fastest tier of the RDOF. 

 

Bidding for the the first tier of the RDOF, worth $16 billion, starts October 22. The auction will not give priority to incumbent carriers in a region, which should open up new opportunities for consortiums or regional ISPs and even non-traditional service providers. Bidding could get particularly interesting in the Northeast, the Rust Belt, and California, where state laws generally do not prohibit municipalities from offering broadband. 

2. The Rural 5G Fund 

The Rural 5G Fund will allocate $9 billion over a decade to wireless broadband. It's meant to go to areas that currently lack service, but the FCC has struggled to create accurate maps and measurements that can drive the direction of these funds. 

Congress and the president have instructed the FCC to tighten its measurements of broadband access. In March, the president signed the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act, or the Broadband Data Act for short. The FCC perceives it as an unfunded mandate and asked Congress to appropriate funds to enact the law. In late September the FCC told us that the funds are still thought to be under discussion in the House Commerce Committee. 

3. Microsoft Airband

Microsoft is all about the cloud now, and no one can access the cloud without internet. The software giant's efforts to connect the unconnected are not limited to the United States, but that's where they are concentrated for now -- Microsoft has more than 50 active Airband projects in the continental United States.

Airband's technical roadmap is led by Sid Roberts, director of engineering at McCaw Cellular for 15 year. The system uses Radwin radio equipment to transmit in the TV white spaces, or the unused portions of the spectrum bands used by broadcasters. The success of this plan clearly relies on continued access to spectrum by TV broadcasters, who already relinquished the valuable 600 MHz spectrum band to mobile network operators.

 

4. Rivada Networks Spectrum Sharing

Rivada wanted to federal government to use its dynamic spectrum sharing technology for FirstNet, but of course lost the contract to AT&T. Now the consortium is back with a plan to use spectrum sharing to enable a wholesale market for spectrum, one it says would be similar to the wholesale electricity market that has famously reduced energy costs in Texas. Rivada is asking the government to let it manage the midband spectrum below 600 MHz, which is currently used by the Department of Defense.

 

The spectrum is currently underutilized, according to political consultant and Rivada investor Karl Rove. Rove thinks the federal government should share the spectrum with commercial interests under the condition that private companies that deploy the spectrum agree to serve rural communities. 

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