On Thursday, FirstLight, a U.S. provider of fiberoptic data, Internet, data center, cloud and voice services to customers in the U.S. Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, announced that it is partnering with Hub66, a New England-based high-speed fiber broadband provider. The new venture is a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) project to deliver high-speed, fiber-based Internet access to underserved rural areas of New Hampshire and Vermont.
“Internet connectivity is more than just speed, it’s about living your life and not thinking about whether your Internet is fast or reliable enough,” said Michael Mateja, Chief Technology Officer at Hub66, upon the deal’s announcement.
A niche infrastructure provider, Hub66 serves a conspicuously undersupplied segment of American society. Founded in 2019, Hub66’s philosophy is to “connect the unconnected,” filling the internet gap with wireless technology and fiber where other providers have left residents without high-speed options.
And this “internet gap” is gaping. According to figures from the FCC, broadband is unavailable to roughly 25 million Americans, more than 19 million of whom are in rural America.
Recent research from Microsoft — which has made valiant efforts to address rural connectivity in recent years — suggests that even the official tally of connected Americans in rural America is likely chronically undercounted.
“Data that Microsoft collects as part of our ongoing work to improve the performance security of our software and services for customers providers additional evidence that the FCC overestimates broadband usage in the United States,” Microsoft wrote in a 2019 report. “While the FCC reports that 92 percent of Americans have access to broadband, our data indicates that the number of people who connect to the internet at 25 Mbps [the speed threshold for downloads as measured in megabits-per-second that the FCC defines as broadband] is probably closer to 49 percent. Largely rural states including West Virginia, Alaska, New Mexico, Arkansas and Mississippi that rank among the lowest for broadband access according to the FCC are also among the lowest in our data.”
Why is this?
Per Microsoft, lower population density and greater distances between homes has historically made the cost of installing fiberoptic cable prohibitively expensive (up to $30,000 per mile) in rural areas.
Alternatives to fiberoptic cable have been slow to develop. Mobile telecommunications technologies like 4G, and eventually 5G, are designed for densely populated urban areas. And finally, satellite broadband may reach relatively remote areas, but is hampered by high latency, high data costs, bandwidth limitations, and interference from foliage.
A recent report from the American Connection Project — a rural broadband advocacy project sponsored by butter maker Land O’Lakes — estimates the cost of closing rural America’s digital gap at $100 billion. It’s an investment project that traditional infrastructure investors or private providers have appeared hesitant to take on.
In response, the American Connection Project has pushed for government incentives to telecommunications companies to bring broadband connectivity to rural areas; better mapping of existing broadband coverage to strategically deploy broadband access to areas in need; and a White House appointee to oversee these efforts.
Investment efforts have come from unexpected quarters. Besides Land O’Lakes taking on an unofficial role as infrastructure lobbyist, earlier this fall, farm supply and lifestyle retailer Tractor Supply Company announced that it would donate up to $1 million to the American Connection Project Broadband Coalition.
At government level, such aid as there has been for rural broadband has come through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Earlier this year, the USDA announced its Rural Development Broadband Re-Connect Program, to provide $200 million for 50/50 grant/loan combinations, and up to $200 million for low-interest loans, offering federal financial and funding options in the form of loans, grants and combinations thereof to incentivize broadband deployment in underserved areas (funding for the pilot closed on April 15 of this year).
In the technology space, rural America has found perhaps its most vocal advocate in Microsoft. In 2018, the company launched its Airband Initiative, with the goal of bringing broadband to 3 million rural Americans by 2022.
They advocate the use of fixed wireless technologies, including fiber-based connectivity satellite coverage, and — notably — TV white space, to address the issue. TV white space refers to unassigned or unused spectrum below 700 Mhz. Historically, these wavelengths were used to carry UHF and VHF television signals. Microsoft says this spectrum could be ideally suited for last-mile rural areas, as it can carry signals over much longer distances and penetrate terrain, walls tree cover and other obstacles better than cellular and other spectrum bands.
In October, Microsoft’s Airband Initiative launched a partnership with French telecommunications equipment supplier RED Technologies to use RED’s TV white space (TVWS) database service in the United States.
Essentially, RED’s database tells devices which frequencies they can use in a given area, at what power and for how long. Using a geo-location database, wireless devices can access TVWS and operate with the current guidance from the United States Federal Communication Commission rules. Using this approach — known as “dynamic spectrum sharing” — wireless communication at relatively high data-rates is possible over long distances, and connectivity can be delivered to large open areas where it would be difficult to deploy fixed infrastructure.
“Expanding connectivity across the U.S. requires every tool in the box, including TV white spaces,” said Vickie Robinson, Senior Director of the Microsoft Airband Initiative, when the partnership with RED Technologies was announced last month. “By leveraging Red Technologies’ advanced database, our partners within the Airband Initiative are better able to expand broadband access to unserved and underserved communities.”
“The digital economy underpins a strong American economy, but remote areas lag behind much of the rest of the U.S. when it comes to broadband connectivity. It’s a problem that we are tackling successfully for poorly-connected parts of the country and it’s fantastic to be bringing new technologies, like dynamic spectrum management, to connect communities and businesses across the country” Michael Abitbol, COO of RED said.
A rural 5G policy
When it comes to lowering the barrier to wireless access, the stakes are high and getting higher. With many rural areas already operating at a disadvantage to more densely populated regions, the introduction of 5G networks — despite 5G’s promise as a driver of precision farming and agtech innovations — could exacerbate this inequity. While dynamic spectrum sharing and private sector
“5G may further widen the rural-urban digital divide, unless there are complementary technologies that can make it cost-effective for ISPs to extend broadband to rural communities,” Microsoft has written. “With 5G residential service just now being introduced, it will be important for policymakers and communications technology providers to support complementary technologies that use a range of (high-, mid- and low-band) radio frequencies, including TV white spaces.
Per Microsoft, pursuing a ‘rural 5G’ strategy like this will give ISPs maximum flexibility to add capacity for customers who already have broadband access, while providing an affordable approach for deploying wireless broadband networks in rural areas.”