In the early 20th century, many rural areas in the U.S. had no electric power, and plenty of people doubted they would ever get it. Electrical infrastructure was too expensive to build, and the technology of the time didn’t carry power far enough to make rural power economically feasible.
Fortunately, Congress and the FDR administration stepped up with the Rural Electrification program. The program created electric cooperative organizations, many of which are still in use today, and provided federal loans for infrastructure and technological innovation.
Today, rural broadband internet stands at a similar crossroads. You’ve probably heard about the difficulty of bringing 5G, with its dense clusters of antennas in plastic enclosures, to rural areas. But the unfortunate reality is that for many rural areas, even basic broadband internet like DSL isn’t available—never mind 5G.
If they’re not going to be shut out of the digital economy, rural areas need fast, reliable and affordable internet access. The FCC’s new ReConnect Loan and Grant Program is a step in the right direction, but what will it look like on the technical side? These four important technologies are currently being used in innovative ways to expand rural broadband access. Let’s take a look at what each one has to offer on this critical frontier.
Mobile internet (internet service delivered through a hotspot on a mobile device such as a phone or tablet) is now one of the most important sources of broadband access in rural America. The 4G waves that power mobile internet can reach up to 10 miles, meaning they may be available in areas where Ethernet connections aren’t built out. Through these mobile device connections, many Americans are gaining internet access for the first time.
The flexibility of mobile hotspots allows them to be used in many innovative ways to provide internet service. For example, some libraries in rural areas now offer hotspot check-out programs, in which patrons can borrow a mobile device with hotspot capabilities to take home, much as they might check out a book or DVD.
However, mobile internet offerings generally aren’t designed to provide home internet. Mobile providers often impose low data caps on their customers, and even unlimited plans begin to slow the speed of internet access after a certain point. Moreover, Wi-Fi from a hotspot has a very limited range, making it unsuitable for covering a whole home. Thus, while mobile internet is a key technology for expanding access in rural areas, it has limitations that make it fall short of true broadband expansion.
TV White Space Internet
There’s a lot of space on the frequency spectrum that goes unused, such as the “white spaces” that TV channels leave between their frequencies for buffering. Now that broadcast TV has shifted to digital transmission, there’s even more of this space available—and it can be used to transmit high-speed internet. White space internet uses these vacant frequencies to provide high-speed internet that can travel long distances and penetrate many types of obstacles.
White space internet has a lot of advantages over traditional wired internet for rural areas. Its waves are powerful and have great range, making them an excellent candidate for broadband internet transmission. Cities like Wilmington, North Carolina and Morgantown, West Virginia have run white space pilot projects with considerable success. And in 2017, Microsoft launched its Airband initiative, which uses white space and other technologies to expand rural broadband around the world.
Unfortunately, white space internet technology remains in limited deployment in a few areas. The infrastructure requires some fairly expensive and specialized technology, and it hasn’t yet caught on enough to bring prices down and investment up. But if industry players like Microsoft are interested, it’s clear there’s merit to the technology.
Satellite internet is another alternative broadband technology that uses geospatial satellites to provide internet access. Satellite internet is capable of reaching extremely remote places, making it a potential lifeline for customers in the true boondocks of America.
The downsides of satellite internet include latency, reliability and cost. Because of the distance the signal must travel from the ground to space and back again, satellite internet isn’t always fast enough for applications like videoconferencing and gaming. In addition, weather conditions can cause impairment in satellite signals, meaning that the internet may not be available during severe weather events. Finally, satellite internet is often more expensive than other options.
While satellite service provides a workable internet solution for some rural customers, its drawbacks mean it isn’t a substitute for true broadband infrastructure expansion. However, it may be the only option for people who live in the most remote rural areas.
Fixed Wireless Broadband
Fixed wireless broadband is a promising newer technology that uses wireless base stations to provide broadband internet service to rural areas. Whereas DSL and cable internet services carry data to and from a subscriber’s modem via physical cables, a fixed wireless connection transmits a signal from the base station over the airwaves to a receiver in an electronics enclosure on the subscriber’s home.
The major advantage of fixed wireless is that it substantially reduces the cost of providing internet service to rural homes, since a single base station can provide service to many homes at once. It’s also faster and more reliable than technologies like satellite internet, and it requires less specialized technology than white space internet.
Fixed wireless isn’t perfect. Like satellite internet, it can be affected by weather conditions. It also relies on “line of sight” between the base station and antenna, which can be blocked by geographic features like trees and hills. However, it’s one of the most promising technologies for rural broadband expansion, and it’s quickly becoming one of the most popular as well.
If rural Americans are to have the access to the 21st century economy that they deserve, they’re going to need fast and reliable internet. Fortunately, through the power of technology and innovation, we’ve got a variety of new tools to ensure that broadband internet follows in the footsteps of rural electricity.