NARROWING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE, BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY
Bloomberg Businessweek|September 27, 2021
With help from Washington, the 120 million Americans without high-speed internet access have their best shot in a generation at getting it—so long as they’re flexible on how
Austin Carr
As Elizabeth Bowles zooms down Route 65 in her black SUV, she’s pointing out possible “vertical assets” on the flat horizon of browned cornfields and the occasional Dollar General. Out here in the Arkansas Delta, the rural area west of the Mississippi River, a vertical asset could be a tall flagpole, or a granary, or the smokestacks of a paper mill—anything high enough for Bowles’s scrappy broadband company, Aristotle Unified Communications LLC, to rig up with telecommunications equipment so it can zap the internet to far-flung customers. “See that water tank up above the pine trees?” she asks. “If you put a radio antenna on top, you can hit everything that it can see.”

Bowles is showing off her whatever-it-takes strategy for narrowing the digital divide between people with reasonably speedy internet access and those without. This gap has remained stubbornly persistent for decades, even as the internet has become steadily more inextricable from daily life, business, health care, and education. Research group BroadbandNow estimates that 42 million Americans have no broadband access, while a depressing 120 million people in the U.S. are without any connection fast enough to even call the internet, according to an October 2020 study by Microsoft Corp. These disparities are particularly severe among Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, and rural communities.

The Delta is what government officials refer to as a “high-cost area,” a remote spot with a sparse population, high poverty rate, and topography that makes everything complicated. In denser towns, it’s more economical for Aristotle to deliver broadband over fiberoptic cables, the industry’s gold standard for speed and reliability. But Bowles says it gets way too expensive in these parts. At about $9 a foot, she notes, every mile we drive deeper into the Delta would cost $50,000 or more to snake fiber through.

To augment coverage, Aristotle is turning increasingly to Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), a wireless spectrum historically used by U.S. Navy aircraft carriers for radar transmissions. In recent years the Federal Communications Commission has opened a slice of this spectrum for commercial use, enabling Aristotle to beam broadband as far as 6 miles to distant Arkansans over signal stations—installed atop cell towers, barns, even a prison—that are sort of like massive Wi-Fi routers. The network is fast enough to stream movies and costs a fraction of what fiber costs to build. “We are one of the poorest states in the country, and the Delta is the poorest area of the state,” Bowles says. “If we can solve the problem here, we can solve it anywhere.”

Although Bowles is an evangelist for so-called fixed wireless systems such as CBRS, she’s adamant that no single technology can solve the whole problem. Fiber proponents believe unspooling cables to every address in America is the only “futureproof” option capable of handling pretty much any bandwidth-heavy application of tomorrow, a premise Bowles finds ridiculous given the price tag and the scale of terrain. Silicon Valley, meanwhile, has long gone after unproven moonshots to blast internet to the masses, from Facebook Inc.’s solar-powered plane project (killed in 2018) to Alphabet Inc.’s stratospheric balloons (scrapped this year).

The messy reality on the ground in places such as Arkansas suggests that a mix of physical and wireless networks would be cheaper and more practical than some one-size-fits-all solution. Now states are looking at the feasibility of everything from CBRS to Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites to 5G home internet depending on their geographic challenges. Like Bowles, Vickie Robinson, general manager of Microsoft’s Airband Initiative, a philanthropic program to bring 3 million more rural Americans online by next July, says her team advocates making use of whatever technology is on offer. “What’s going to give you the most bang for your buck? That should be the guiding principle,” says Robinson, who’s provided Airband grant money to Aristotle for several wireless deployments.

With the Biden administration pushing ahead with its infrastructure bill, including $65 billion in broadband-related subsidies in the plan that passed the Senate, there’s a great debate playing out over which technologies the U.S. should bet on. Tom Wheeler, a former FCC chairman under President Barack Obama, is a fervent fiber-first advocate, but he acknowledges that the country will have to use every tool to connect the most isolated citizens. “I don’t care if they’re using a string and tin can if they can get the right throughput,” Wheeler says of locations fiber can’t reach. “The question becomes, where do you draw the line?”

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