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CHAPTER V - The Digital Divide

Americans have varying access to broadband service depending on where they live, some may simply not be able to afford connectivity. Users may also have starkly different needs. Roundtable participants agreed that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, but rather a need for a “toolbox” of solutions to address the digital divide. 5G will affect various aspects of the digital divide. Overall, getting everyone connected to broadband networks would be good for the American economy, income equality, and getting rural areas connected to broadband network.

Elements of the Digital Divide
There are multiple elements of the digital divide. Although the focus is often on coverage, (whether you have a signal), it is also important to know about capacity (what data rate is possible). Is the service 4G or 5G, and what frequency bands are being used (low, mid, millimeter wave)? Device availability and affordability, along with service affordability, also come into play. Whether massive IoT and low-latency IoT capabilities are available will also be elements of the digital divide in the future.

In rural areas, coverage is the primary determinant followed by capacity. There are relatively dense rural environments, such as in Mississippi, as well as sparse rural environments, as in South Dakota. New technologies, such as low-earth-orbit satellites (LEOs) and fixed wireless could be game changers. In contrast, 5G millimeter wave is unlikely to be important in the rural environment because the technology only covers short distances or dense areas, such as urban environments.

In the urban environment, coverage problems are less relevant (4G and 5G with low-band coverage and mid-band capacity allow penetration of buildings), but with greater population density, capacity becomes more of an issue due to concentrated demand. Satellites may be less helpful in urban areas. Conferees discussed the potential benefits of a fixed wireless solution such as Starry’s offering, a wireless 5G home Internet service. Starry’s hardware solution to use rooftop buildings for their fixed wireless technology has enabled the company to provide affordable alternatives to large internet providers.

5G is likely to make the rural digital divide worse, and in many cases considerably worse. There are significant technology-based challenges: millimeter wave spectrum is not likely to be useful in rural areas; edge computing requires low latency which is hard to produce in rural areas. In short, capabilities that exist in urban environments may not exist (or will be extraordinarily expensive) in rural areas. It may be that service and speed in rural areas are “just ok,” compared to “excellent” in urban areas, given a combination of technology, geography, and finances. 5G may also exacerbate the divide among cities, suggested Doug Brake, Director of Broadband and Spectrum Policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Cities that already have a big network with local talent and jobs may be better able to put this new technology to use than many other cities.

A counter-theory is that “5G increases the digital divide as it is defined geographically, but not necessarily as it is defined economically,” suggested Jonathan Chaplin. If 5G delivers massive amounts of capacity, it will drive down the unit cost of data. For people in urban areas in reach of millimeter wave and ultimately mid-band spectrum, it ought to help more people access service and applications at affordable prices. This does depend on the price of a device dropping radically.

There is a need for creative solutions to address the digital divide, including spectrum-based solutions and subsidy programs. Designing solutions requires an understanding of the needs of different types of users. Diverse solutions will be required to match local use cases, and these solutions are likely to include: 4G/5G, satellite, Wi-Fi, and fixed wireless. Additional mid-band spectrum would help address both rural and urban divide challenges. Subsidy programs are likely to be required and should be technology neutral, consistent with policy objectives. Phillip Berenbroick at Public Knowledge said that if there are subsidies for service deployment, it may be necessary to have a baseline level of speed/capacity/latency. If you are focusing aid for deployment to a specific geographic place, you probably are getting one bite at the apple, not providing aid for fiber and Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), and giving people a choice in carriers. In short, government should provide more mid-band spectrum and subsidies for coverage and capacity.

It is important to have a fixed solution and not just a mobile solution, especially for families with school-age children, in order to leverage broadband connectivity at an affordable price that enables computers and not just handheld devices, stressed Paula Boyd at Microsoft. She added, “To me, a kid can’t survive on a mobile connection. They can’t go through the educational experience from kindergarten through high school on a mobile connection.” When people have access to fixed broadband, they likely spend less to get the connectivity and capacity that they need. Connectivity that meets all of the needs of a family at an affordable price is important. As mobile networks become more capable and have more capacity, there is the potential to meet those needs with a mobile service. Michael Calabrese at the Open Technology Institute specified that for mobile services to meet this connectivity goal would require the price per gigabyte to drop by 90 percent.

Connecting rural areas can help solve global issues, too. Precision agriculture increases food production for a growing global population. Similarly, rural areas can be connected in order to collect data on climate change, which will be critical to solving these bigger issues. J. Stephanie Rose, Ph.D. student at the School of Computing & Information at the University of Pittsburgh said that if the United States comes up with rural solutions, they may translate into global humanitarian efforts, which potentially could lead to more support and stability from abroad. Humanitarian efforts such as global adoption may also lead to “buy in” from other countries as the United States seeks to lead with respect to 5G infrastructure.

In addition to connectivity, there is a need for solutions that focus on training, technical education, and the labor force. There is currently a limited workforce with the capabilities to roll out the new technologies. Some work is being done, but there are enhancements that would be helpful, such as apprenticeship programs. To assist, the Department of Labor could establish broadband deployment as a discrete focus area. Labor could be drawn from the communities served, which would benefit the community economically and also produce a trained workforce.

The group expressed a strong sense that both equity and excellence are important. But it is hard to believe that the solution that creates rural broadband is the same solution that leads to the fastest rollout of 5G in the United States.

States and cities have a major role to play in the roll-out of 5G. Federal, state, and local government should work together to address the roll out of emerging technology. Localities can provide incentives for the provision of technological capabilities, for example by creating easy paths to permitting and infrastructure, or by encouraging shared infrastructure. Charla Rath cautioned that infrastructure sharing “becomes more of an issue in a 5G world where carriers are already densifying the network they use for 4G. In certain areas there is a lot of tension between cities and carriers, but legitimately cities need to think about how many different times” they will be asked for approval for multiple antennas and placements, and should they be pushing for infrastructure sharing. Rath also noted that carriers are cognizant of the first mover advantage, and the loss of that advantage to free riders if the first carrier is required to share. Many cities want to move forward, but there have been “two [wireless] carriers who had a very significant spectrum advantage over the two other national carriers,” stated Blair Levin of the Brookings Institution. Accordingly, whereas rhetorically the carriers with the spectrum advantage wanted the cities to speed up, they wanted cities to do it in ways that would advantage those two carriers and not in ways that would effectively level the playing field. There may be a tension between trying to drive down costs and recognizing that for individual carriers, there is a real value to keeping the current barriers in place.

In CBRS, sharing is called “the condo model,” said Preston Marshall of Google. He said that “CBRS has a unique property in that everyone has a right to the band; they do not have to have separate RF bands.” People can share it whenever you want. There are a few companies that have been privately trying to syndicate that, and it is the same idea presented in PCAST. The entity who builds infrastructure that can be used in common will have the lowest marginal cost. Ideally, this offers opportunities to try out a business model on a small scale that ultimately could be applied at a larger scale. One participant said that the Chinese do a huge amount of network sharing and have since mandated it.

To understand the value of the technology coming their way, the Chief Information Officers and Chief Technology Officers of states and cities, along with their citizenry, need more education. Universities may be able to help with technical education. States and cities also need access to technical skills to be able to address the challenges of rolling out the technologies that are right to address their particular needs. Zero-rating dot.gov services can reduce the cost to citizens and also create incentives for the local government to provide more services. Local leaders will need to ensure that specific communities are not prioritized over others. An approach to counter digital redlining, creating inequities through the use of digital technologies, would be for cities to provide incentives targeted at low-income areas, such as subsidizing open-access fiber, providing access to street furniture for small cells, or leveraging municipal utilities.

 
 
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