What we learned about the digital divide this year
Nicole Ferraro, Editor, Light Reading, 12/30/2021
According to the UN's International Telecommunication Union (ITU), roughly 3 billion people worldwide still don't have access to the Internet. In the US alone, different estimates put that number in the 20 to 60 million range.
Back in January, spurred by a year spent in and out of various forms of global COVID-19 lockdowns, we at Light Reading and Broadband World News launched a new podcast series called "The Divide" to ask a key question: Why, after years of talking about it, and throwing money at it, does the digital divide still exist? And what needs to be done to close it?
Since then, over the course of 42 episodes, we've had conversations with various stakeholders in the US and abroad about what has and hasn't worked so far, and what it will take to solve it.
Here are a few takeaways from some of those conversations:
It's all about good mapping
First and foremost, to solve the digital divide, we need to know why and where it exists. But the underlying data is insufficient.
That's true all over the world, said David Hartshorn, CEO of Geeks Without Frontiers, a nonprofit organization working to address the digital divide globally.
"The challenge that the US government has on having an accurate understanding of mapping data at any given moment is not in any way unique," he said. "Every other country in the world has the same challenge. And there's a general and broad recognition that this is a challenge."
Hartshorn joined the podcast, along with Jennifer Alvarez, co-founder and CEO at Aurora Insight, back in August to discuss their partnership to solve the global broadband gap with aerial mapping.
In the US, the mapping issue is just heating up. The US Congress tasked the FCC with creating a new broadband map that accurately tracks the nation's digital divide – and that map needs to be available for states to draw up their plans next year on how to spend at least $100 million in broadband funds.
To that end, some states have taken the initiative to create their own maps, like Pennsylvania. The makers of that map joined us recently to discuss how they did it and to share advice for other states.
And with billions on the table for broadband, some well-placed companies see a new opportunity. That includes the commercial real estate technology company LightBox, whose CEO Eric Frank appeared on The Divide in September to discuss the company's new national broadband map showing that 60 million US households lack access to high-speed services.
As Frank told Broadband World News recently, "every state is a potential customer."
Municipal networks are worth the fight
Consumer advocacy and policy groups by and large agree: To solve the digital divide, we need all options – and that includes municipal networks for communities that want them.
But thanks to successful lobbying by the cable industry, at least 17 states across the US have laws on their books prohibiting these networks.
Some are finding ways around that. Washington State Representative Drew Hansen's way was fighting for a new piece of legislation that would essentially reverse the state's ban. He appeared on The Divide in June, after his public broadband bill passed, to tell us more about how he got it done:
In a recent follow-up conversation with Broadband World News, Hansen said there's been "a lot of interest across the state in expanding public broadband," since the bill became law in July. "This ranges from public utility districts to newly formed cooperative organizations," he said. "We're in the planning and deployment stage now."
Another defier-of-muni-broadband bans we spoke to this year was Roger Timmerman, CEO of UTOPIA Fiber, an open-access municipal fiber network in Utah. While Utah's laws technically ban municipal networks, Timmerman said UTOPIA found a way around that by offering open access: "If you do a careful reading of the state code, it doesn't outright prohibit municipal fiber," he said. But it tries to make it "so ridiculously prohibitive" so no one does it. "It's just this horrible, horrible chapter of garbage legislation that was written by incumbent providers to just stifle any efforts," said Timmerman.
Communities are doin' it for themselves
In the absence of support from incumbent service providers, or adequate funding from governments, some communities are finding unique solutions to the digital divide all on their own.
In June, we spoke with Minneapolis-based community leader Ini Augustine who founded Project Nandi following the onset of COVID-19 to help prevent Black, Indigenous, Latinx and Asian students in Minnesota's Twin Cities from being left behind by remote learning. She told us more about how the digital divide was worsened by the coinciding crises of the pandemic and police violence in 2020, and why community-borne solutions like Project Nandi to address broadband inequity are necessary:
In May, we spoke with Alex Wyglinski and Casey Canfield, engineering professors and co-leads on a broadband deployment project in Clinton County, Missouri. Their project to bring RF-over-fiber (RFoF) to rural Clinton County received grant funding through US Ignite's Project Overcome, which gets most of its funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Here's Wyglinski, Canfield and US Ignite's Mari Silbey discussing the unique challenges of serving broadband in this community and how the RFoF project could make a difference:
There's an industry divide, too
Going into 2022, another divide is set to play out as the US begins distributing billions of dollars for broadband: that is, the "future-proof" technology divide.
From trade groups to advocacy organizations, broadband stakeholders have strong opinions about whether it's more important to spend money getting fiber to every home, or to go with "tech-neutral" solutions, like satellite, fixed wireless and cable, that could connect people sooner.
As Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told us in January on our first-ever episode of The Divide, "Fiber-to-the-home, that fiber infrastructure is the universal 21st century medium."
That sentiment was certainly echoed by Gary Bolton, president of the Fiber Broadband Association, who joined the podcast recently to discuss why state broadband funding from the infrastructure bill should go to fiber providers.
Others, like Claude Aiken, CEO of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), told us that the US needs to stay tech-neutral to solve the digital divide.
Ultimately, say state broadband advocates like Francella Ochillo, executive director for Next Century Cities, who appeared on The Divide in May, it should be left to communities to decide what's best for them.
"Fiber is probably going to be the most reliable, the fastest technology," said Ochillo. "I think that any community that has the choice is going to hands-down choose fiber. But if you don't have a choice, and you're relying on DSL, do you really want to have two and three years of arguments over whether or not you should get coax or fiber? No, you want to make sure you can get broadband to your residence."
We'll dive further into all of these topics and much more on the show next year. In the meantime, you can find all episodes of The Divide on the Light Reading Podcast feed wherever you like to listen, or check out the playlist below.
— Nicole Ferraro, site editor, Broadband World News; senior editor, global broadband coverage, Light Reading. Host of "The Divide" on the Light Reading Podcast.
Here's where you can find episode links for 'The Divide,' Light Reading's podcast series featuring conversations with broadband providers and policymakers working to close the digital divide.
As we have for the past two years, Light Reading will present our Cable Next-Gen Europe conference as a free digital symposium on June 21.
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As we have for the past two years, Light Reading will stage the Cable Next-Gen Technologies & Strategies conference as a free digital event over two half-days in mid-March.
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