The $7.2 billion in federal grants that were to provide a push for broadband services into rural America was mostly wasted. Much of it went to fiber in some rural areas, but the bang for the buck in getting broadband into rural America is not to run fiber but to make use of wireless broadband. As of today, the push into rural America is still more of a crawl, and while many sections of rural America have systems of various types in the planning stages, growth is still slower than expected a few years ago.
WiMAX systems have made some gains; the promise of TV white space that can be used for longer-distance communications than Wi-Fi is coming online and might help in some rural areas, especially when combined with standard Wi-Fi to deliver signals into homes and offices. Some people have opted for satellite broadband. This, however, is expensive and, there is a lot of latency, which precludes some Internet activities such as banking and other secure applications that time-out over satellite systems. While some of the rural cellular networks have been deploying wireless broadband, much of rural America is still uncovered by broadband of any type, and there seems to be no concerted effort to change that.
There is one solution on the horizon that could bring broadband to most of rural America in record time. It will be wireless and use LTE on 700 MHz. How is this possible? Well, it depends on some things that are happening in Congress right now, but if the results turn out favorably, and I believe they will, this will be a solid opportunity for rural power companies, telcos, ISPs, and others that serve rural America today.
How will this work? Public safety is engaged in a debate with the FCC and Congress to add the 700 MHz D Block to its existing 10 MHz of spectrum to have a full 20 MHz of broadband spectrum. This spectrum is necessary for video and data services in most of the country, but, in rural America, it could be shared with any and all of those I mentioned above.
My thoughts on this are as follows: Rural power companies already have right-of-ways for their electric lines and high-tension towers that make ideal cell sites. They also serve rural America with fleets of trucks that are available for service calls. If the rural power companies entered into a private/public partnership with the public-safety agencies in their areas and assisted in the buildout of the spectrum (the full 20 MHz), then there would be enough for public safety, which needs it no matter where they are, enough for power companies to use the same network on a secondary basis for their own smart grid, and enough bandwidth to sell both fixed and mobile broadband services to the power customers.
Likewise, rural telcos could participate by partnering with and building out portions of the system. They could then resell service to their customers for fixed and mobile services. ISPs could also get into the game, perhaps using the 700 MHz LTE system in combination with TV white space and Wi-Fi to serve small towns with broadband services.
Public safety would get the network it needs in rural America, and those living and working in rural America would have access to wireless broadband services faster than with any other proposal I have seen. The network could be built more quickly, be cheaper, and provide services where there is no economic incentive to build out commercial wireless networks. Public safety brings spectrum to the table and the core users for the network. Private partners could contribute whatever they have to reduce public safety's cost for the network, and it would be built within a five-year period.
The glitch in all of this is that the reallocation of the D Block and the federal funding of the public-safety network are in the hands of Congress. There are several bills pending in both the House and the Senate to make this happen and the executive branch has expressed its desire to see it accomplished, so what public safety needs are the votes in Congress to get these bills passed, preferably between now and the 10th anniversary of 9/11 this September.
If this makes sense to you, then you should contact your Congressional representatives and tell them you are in favor of the reallocation of the D Block and funding of the public-safety network. This is one of the very few triple-wins (win, win, win) that has come to wireless in a long time. Public safety wins, rural providers win, and the citizens who live and work in rural America win.
We need to provide broadband services to rural America. It is imperative for them and for all of us. They are entitled to the same type of broadband access that those of us who live in the cities and suburbs enjoy today. This plan is a great way to accomplish this, and, for the first time, it becomes economically feasible for all parties concerned. If we wait for more stimulus money (which I don't believe will be forthcoming) it won't happen. Those within the federal and state governments who are working on solving this problem should take a long, hard look at this solution.
Andrew M. Seybold is an authority on technology and trends shaping the world of wireless mobility. A respected analyst, consultant, commentator, author and active participant in industry trade organizations, his views have influenced strategies and shaped initiatives for telecom, mobile computing and wireless industry leaders worldwide. www.andrewseybold.com.