Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic proved the internet invaluable with so many of us working, shopping, educating our children, and accessing health care – all from home – we’re still faced with a digital divide between those who have access to broadband Internet and those who don’t. Efforts by service providers to upgrade their network infrastructure to handle increased load has been both rapid and impressive, but more is needed. There remains a significant percent of the population lacking sufficient broadband to fully participate in the digital economy and society. This must change, but how?
There are three areas we need to focus on if we hope to expand much-needed internet access to those who lack it: bridging the digital divide, locating and securing available funds, and improved expertise and planning. But first let’s examine the numbers as related to the ever-increasing value of the internet and those who lack full access to its benefits.
In March 2022, Cisco released its Global Broadband Index Report surveying more than 60,000 workers across 30 different markets about their home broadband access, quality, and usage. Below are a few stats that caught my eye:
• 84% use the internet at home for four or more hours each day
• 78% agree that everyone should be able to securely connect to fast and reliable internet regardless of location
• 65% believe access to affordable and reliable broadband will become a major issue in the future
• 58% state that they were unable to access critical services during lockdown due to unreliable internet
In the United States, there are about 20 million who lack access to high-speed broadband services, and some 17 million school children don’t have internet access at home. Ensuring broadband access and affordability are critical to closing the digital divide. The problem is significantly greater in rural areas, where about 19.3% of the total U.S. population resides. In rural areas, the cost to build and deliver broadband internet services are much higher due to lower population density, harsher environments, and other factors.
Bridging the digital divide is a great idea, but who’s going to pay for it?
The good news is the U. S. Federal Government is providing another $62 billion in grant dollars on top of the $38 billion pre-pandemic grants for broadband internet build outs. Along with wireless expansion, the government’s funding focus has also shifted to fiber and this new money, provided by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), is part of a five-year program. This funding makes it easier to scale your network infrastructure because with the government helping to fund the last mile, it allows service providers to upgrade their middle mile as well, to support additional users and increased bandwidth. Using federal grants helps you build up the network backbone that might have otherwise been too costly.
The additional $65 billion seeks to address the digital divide and specifically focuses on groups of people that are “underserved” and “unserved” as defined in the law. By underserved we’re talking about those who are served by lower speed broadband that doesn’t exceed a certain threshold, for example 100 Mbps download by 20 Mbps upload. Unserved refers to those having internet speeds below 25 Mbps download by 3 Mbps upload.
Below are some of U.S. federal programs that are in the middle of funding broadband deployments, waiting on program rules, or still waiting for funding to be appropriated.
The most significant grant program for both public and private entities is the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) with $42 billion set aside for last-mile broadband deployment. This is where both public and private entities can win grant money to deploy broadband to the unserved and underserved. This also means there’s a need for new affiliations like Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) which are contracts between a private party and a government agency to offer a public asset or service such as municipality-provided broadband through a partnership with an internet service provider. PPPs make obtaining right of ways much easier because you’re directly partnering with cities and counties.
PPPs provide many benefits to public entities such as Wi-Fi access and improved broadband for schools, and they help scale the economy because you’re adding subscribers who will consume content, shop online, and seek out other internet-based services. They need ISP partners in order to deliver these benefits.
Knowledge and expertise are key to success
Yet, funding alone is not enough to close the digital divide. You need to determine the right combination of solutions for a particular use case, region, and implementation to get the results you expect. This may require extensive expertise and answering all the questions ahead of time has proved difficult—until now.
Cisco is delivering a new generation of network infrastructure technologies and innovation that provide more capacity and greater flexibility at a lower cost per subscriber, helping to import the economics of the Internet. Here are a few examples:
• Capacity at lower cost with Cisco Silicon One and Routed Optical Networking
• Lower OpEx with simplified networks and automation
• Improved sustainability and flexibility for remote deployment scenarios
• Flexible consumption and payment methods that enable you to pay as you grow
These technologies can make it much easier and less expensive for service providers to expand their offerings in rural regions. Now you can experience them up close and in person at the Cisco Broadband Innovation Center located in Research Triangle Park, NC. This is a perfect opportunity to expand your knowledge and expertise in rural broadband development. Not only will you see how to model and address your own specific use cases, but service providers can also focus on how to be more prepared for grant applications by understanding ways to benefit from Cisco’s next-generation network innovations. And it’s important to remember that federal grants will be awarded to the service providers with the best solutions, so it’s critical to work with a proven company at the forefront of rural broadband development.
The new generation of Cisco broadband solutions can help you meet the needs of a growing hybrid workforce, deliver more capacity to rural regions, and bridge the digital divide. Ready to see firsthand how the innovations mentioned above, coupled with increased knowledge and experience, can change the game for your network and subscribers? Schedule your visit to the Broadband Innovation Center today. If you need help planning, check out our State and Local Government Connectivity Broadband whitepaper on building a collaborative planning model to expand broadband services in your community.