Industry Voices — Lowenstein: Avoiding another multi-billion-dollar broadband boondoggle

There are three pillars involved in solving the digital divide problem once and for all. (Pixabay)
Mark Lowenstein

The call to bridge the digital divide has intensified since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The move to work and learn from home has thrown into sharp relief the broadband gap. Some 10-15% of Americans can’t get a decent broadband connection even if they wanted it -- these are the unserved or underserved. Another 10-20% of households don’t have broadband because the $50-$60 monthly price tag represents a significant financial hardship. These are the high school kids doing their homework in the McDonald’s parking lot. 

We’ve been at this problem in earnest for about 10 years now. In March 2010, to much fanfare, President Obama released Connect America: The National Broadband Plan. The goal was to connect 100 million households with 100 Mbps internet service by 2020. This objective has been partially realized. Most households with access to cable DOCSIS service or fiber (Verizon Fios) are able to get that sort of speed today. Broadband for the ‘haves’ has improved markedly over the past five years, helping to power all that streaming and Zooming.

However, efforts to connect the unconnected have fallen way short. Many billions of dollars have been thrown at this, through multiple initiatives, programs and subsidies. Given the magnitude of the spend, there has been relatively little progress in providing decent broadband service to underserved households, or in making broadband more affordable for the tens of millions of households for whom that $50-$60 bill presents a financial challenge. 

I can rattle off about 10 federal "Bridge the Divide" initiatives of various types since 2010. Some $20 billion of programs, grants, auction proceeds, subsidies, tax breaks and the like. I honestly don’t know where some of this money has gone. A good sum of it has been earmarked but not actually allocated or spent. Perhaps 25% of the households who couldn’t get broadband in 2010 can get it today.

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But we’re at a moment. Regardless of when and how we go back post-Covid, working and learning from home will be a permanent fixture. And we’ll need to be prepared for remote connectivity in future outbreaks in the same way we now know we’ll need the proper stockpile of PPEs and testing kits.

Solving this broadband problem

There are three pillars involved in solving this problem once and for all: how to properly count/measure who can’t get broadband or can’t afford it; how, technically, we can reach that last ~15% of unserved/underserved households; and how to fund broadband expansion/affordability initiatives. 

First, the counting thing. It doesn’t help the government when, as has been widely reported in recent weeks, we still don’t have a good handle on just how many households can’t get broadband. So the range is now 20 million to 40 million Americans. That’s an unforgivable margin for error. If we’d been intelligent about this, it could have been one question on the 2020 Census: “Do you have access to a broadband service of at least 50 Mbps?” But we do need a proper count. I suspect it will be easy to measure the 80% of households who are un/underserved. As with so many things, the last 20% will be tougher to gauge.

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Then there’s the question of how we reach those underserved households. Given the huge U.S. landmass and challenging issues of density and topography, it’s not an easy or inexpensive problem to solve. But the technical means are coalescing, and it is becoming more affordable to do so. 

Fixed wireless access (FWA) is now in a position to play a more significant role in bridging this divide. Between mmWave, CBRS, C-Band, and 6 GHz Wi-Fi, we have more theoretical capacity becoming available in the next five years than total network capacity today. The 3.5 GHz band could be a boon for the wireless internet service providers (WISPs), who have historically relied on unlicensed solutions to serve their 4+ million (mainly rural) customers. The 2.5 GHz band is also good spectrum for FWA.

As an example, Shentel has acquired 90 MHz of spectrum in Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio, which it will use to provide FWA to 500,000 households, two-thirds of which don’t have decent broadband today. T-Mobile has announced plans to offer FWA to some 10 million households, covering "half the zip codes in the United States," which tells us that there will be an ex-urban/rural flavor to their approach.

The significant increase in network capacity should also make the incumbent mobile operators more amenable to using the cellular network as an alternative to fixed broadband -- if not through FWA then through data plans that allow the service to be a defacto broadband substitute. A $40 per month plan offering 50-100 Mbps with some form of data cap, such as 200-300 GB per month, could be quite doable on a larger scale with all the capacity coming online. One could certainly see this as an opportunity for Dish once it builds its network, either sold directly or through wholesale relationships. Perhaps more households will ultimately have one broadband service that combines fixed and mobile. It would be the 2020's version of cutting the landline for cellular only, as so many households have done. 

If you look at the universe at broadband underserved/unserved households, I think it’s a reasonable estimate that at least 50% of them could be affordably reached by FWA. The other 50% will require some combination of solutions, accounting for some new/improved technologies over the next few years. We can count on some improvements to satellite service and perhaps one of the new satellite ventures actually making it. And you also have tech giants such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft throwing megadollars at the problem. Let’s assume something comes out of this! 

Finally, there’s the question of affordability. Coming out of Covid, we’re going to need a good handle on how many households are struggling to pay their broadband bills or who don’t buy it because they can’t afford it.

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With the types of stimulus dollars being tossed around and contemplated, you’d be surprised at what can be done for relatively modest dollars, comparatively. $10 billion per year could be used to give 20 million households $500 toward their bills. What if we were to come up with something creative to realize $10 billion: ⅓ from the federal government stimulus, ⅓ from spectrum auction proceeds, and ⅓ from industry -- fixed/mobile service providers, cable companies, and the Netflixes of the world that ride on these broadband networks. Some of this could even be used to help the cable companies improve and extend their internet essentials-type services. 

It would be good to set a goal. Let’s get a firm count on the number of underserved households and set an objective of reaching a significant percentage of them by 2025. That’s chipping away at some 2-3 million households per year, roughly speaking. With all the new spectrum, 5G, stimulus dollars, and some effective public-private sector cooperation, this is achievable. 

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is managing director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.