New communication technologies carry both promise and peril for bridging the digital divide. But before they narrow the gap between rural and urban America, they may actually widen it significantly.
Eventually, new satellite broadband services and more fiber-to-the-home connections should allow rural communities to catch up later in the 2020s — until the next wave of innovation comes along.
"The problem is there is a moving target with broadband. It becomes a difficult prospect for rural areas to catch up," said Ian Olgeirson, a research director with Kagan, a media research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence.
Colorado has made big strides in boosting broadband coverage, which the Federal Communications Commission defines as 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds. But much of the northern Front Range is on the doorstep of affordable 1 gigabit per second service (Gbps), which is 40 times faster.
"There will always be disparity," acknowledges Tony Neal-Graves, executive director of Colorado's Broadband Office.
The problem is fundamentally an economic one. If providers could make money serving rural areas with faster broadband speeds, they would do so. But rolling out new technology can be harder to justify where potential customers are scarcer.
Take the next generation of wireless technology known as 5G. The fastest version of 5G, operating on millimeter wavelengths, promises download speeds of 1-gig to 2-gig and the ability to handle dozens of devices in a home with almost no lag.
But Verizon Wireless, which is installing a 5G system in Denver, is focusing exclusively on the most densely populated neighborhoods, like downtown. It will take several years to reach the suburbs, and it remains uncertain if more remote areas will ever see the fastest version of 5G technology.
For starters, the millimeter band is fast but its signals can't travel far, only 50 to 300 yards. That's a major complication given the wider distances to cover in rural areas. Carriers must install multiple closely-spaced antennas, which is more expensive and only makes sense right now in more densely-populated areas.
And to haul the signals out, abundant fiber-optic capacity is needed, something many rural communities still lack.
"5G is very reliant on fiber to the site," Eric Fradette, Verizon network system performance director, said during an interview in May .
Rural areas will get 5G, but a much slower and lower frequency version able to carry signals long distances. The technology, while it will be an improvement over current speeds, is not one that will bridge the digital divide.
On Dec. 2, T-Mobile flipped the switch on what it described as the first nationwide 5G network, covering more than 200 million people, 5,000 cities and towns, and 1 million square miles. That's about 60% of the country's population, but under a third of its geographic territory.
T-Mobile, as part of its efforts to merge with Sprint, made a pact with the federal government to cover 97% of the country with 5G wireless service within three years and 99% within six years.
T-Mobile said some of the less populated Colorado communities covered in the initial launch this month include Antonito, Arriba, Burlington, Clifton, Dolores, Fort Garland, Fruitvale, Haxton, Holly, Hotchkiss, Ignacio, Lamar, Meeker, Poncha Springs, Rico, Saguache, Silverton, Springfield, Wolcott and Yampa.
But critics were quick to pounce, describing T-Mobile's new 600 Megahertz network as more of a souped-up version of 4G LTE, the current standard, and not a game-changer. The new 5G network is providing speeds that are on average just 20% higher than what the current 4G LTE network is offering, according to Ars Technica .
That should meet the current FCC definition of broadband, but it isn't anywhere close to what Verizon, AT&T and even T-Mobile are looking to bring to urban neighborhoods via millimeter wave.
As part of the $26 billion merger between T-Mobile and Sprint, Dish Network, based in Douglas County, said this July it would build a new 5G network from the ground up to replace Sprint as the nation's fourth wireless carrier.
Dish isn't ready to talk in detail about its rural broadband strategy. The company wrote the FCC in July and said it will put in 15,000 5G sites across the country and build a network reaching 70% of the U.S. population by June 14, 2023.
And it is pledging download speeds of at least 35 Mbps, above the current FCC definition of broadband.
But here's the rub: 5G wireless speeds of 1,000 Mbps are around the corner for downtown Denver residents, and that could rise severalfold in the years ahead.
"We are very early on in this technology. It will continue to evolve and get faster," Fradette said.
Rural users, assuming they are within reach of a cellular tower, will get a version of 5G at around 35 Mbps, which will also increase over time, but fall far short of what cities will have.
For rural areas, any kind of improvement, even if incremental, is welcome, said Kevin Hasley, executive director of performance benchmarking at IHS Markit.
"It will be fast enough," he said of even the slowest versions of 5G wireless, at least initially.
But as has happened every other time speeds and capacity have increased, applications are developed to take advantage of the additional bandwidth. Uses now unimagined will eventually become viewed as indispensable, such as ride-hailing on a mobile device, which 4G wireless made possible.
To download a high-definition movie with 4 gigabytes of data would take about 23 minutes at the speeds defined as broadband in rural America, according to the Download Time Calculator .
For someone at the 5G download speeds that Dish has pledged, it would take a little more than 16 minutes. For a city dweller with 1-gig available through the fastest version of 5G, hybrid-cable or fiber optic, it would take 34 seconds.
And it isn't about streaming movies and video games. Fast 5G wireless is expected to make it easier for self-driving cars to become established and for homes to have multiple devices, sensors and appliances all connected to the Internet.
If rural areas can't accommodate those new uses, they will fall further behind. And repeated studies have found a direct correlation between broadband connectivity and the ability of rural counties to remain economically relevant.
"Only the most connected counties were able to stave off population declines," note Jeremy Hegle and Jennifer Wilding, who authored a digital divide study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
Fiber has miles to go
Although 5G could widen the digital divide in Colorado and elsewhere, lower costs for installing fiber-optic technology are making it more feasible to deploy high-speed connections directly to homes and businesses in rural communities.
Graves said about 80% of the applications to the state seeking broadband funding in rural areas now include a fiber solution. But lower costs are also driving a push to install fiber deeper into metropolitan neighborhoods, and there is no doubt who is going to win that race.
Comcast is the state's largest residential broadband provider, covering about 63% of homes in Colorado, according to Kagan. Behind it is CenturyLink, the state's incumbent telephone provider, with a 26% market share.
Comcast estimates that its local customers now have speeds ranging from 60 Mbps to 500 Mbps. In 2017, Comcast unveiled 1-gig service in metro Denver, claiming "this changes everything."
"We are the nation's largest Gig Internet provider, and 10-gig symmetrical speeds are part of our technology road map. Through our network, we have regularly increased speeds for customers at no additional cost," said Leslie Oliver, a local spokeswoman for the company.
Comcast uses a hybrid of fiber optic and coaxial cables to supply most of its Colorado customers, who are concentrated primarily in the northern Front Range and the Interstate 70 corridor. Much of its gains have come at the expense of CenturyLink, the incumbent telephone provider, which has relied heavily on DSL, a slower copper-line technology.
"Operators who have a legacy DSL delivery have seen consistent declines and subscriber losses to the cable competition," Olgerison said. "CenturyLink is no exception to that rule."
Because CenturyLink is the only telecommunications provider in large swaths of Colorado, losing customers, whether for telephone service or broadband, leaves it less able to invest in the rural markets it serves.
But don't count CenturyLink out just yet. Block by block, it is laying down fiber in neighborhoods across metro Denver and Boulder. It plans to add 46,000 homes and 1,300 businesses by early next year, providing them with 1-gig speeds for a flat $65 per month.
"We are going to keep building fiber in the metro area. Everything starts with density. You can get more homes passed with your dollar," said Chris Denzin, CenturyLink's vice president of consumer sales.
CenturyLink is starting with 1-gig because that is plenty fast and a number that residential customers can wrap their heads around. Eventually, equipment upgrades could allow it to boost speeds tenfold or even hundredfold. The key is putting in the fiber connection.
CenturyLink has been installing residential fiber since late 2013 in metro Denver, mostly in new communities, Denzin said. But the installation of 5G is helping fund the deployment of fiber deeper into existing neighborhoods.
Wireless carriers need the capacity, but CenturyLink benefits by being in a position to better compete with Comcast and the wireless carriers.
A Pew Research Center study found that 17% of U.S. adults rely on a smartphone, not a traditional high-speed internet connection, for home broadband . That's down from 20% in 2018, but the faster speeds promised with 5G could accelerate that trend, unless wired providers can offer a more compelling product.
Expanding fiber coverage in rural communities is a tougher problem to crack, especially without demand from 5G carriers to build one out. But running fiber to the home could provide a more "future-proof" solution than other technologies.
"Are we doing enough to get enough fiber in the state," asked Graves, who describes that as his top concern.
As CenturyLink gives more of metro Denver 1-gig speeds via fiber, it still struggles to provide download speeds of 10 Mbps in part of rural areas in Colorado using DSL, which depends on copper lines.
The CenturyLink upgrades are heavily subsidized under a federal grant program called the Connect America Fund II that provides $26 million a year in Colorado.
When DSL is nearby the fiber-optic network, download speeds can top 100 Mbps, said Guy Gunther, director of consumer fiber markets at CenturyLink, in an email. But that isn't the reality on the ground in many places, where 10 Mbps is the norm.
Gunther is hopeful that the proposed Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the next big FCC grant program, will help boost download speeds to 25 Mbps in the most disadvantaged areas. At the same time, CenturyLink will keep adding more direct fiber connections in urban areas at 1,000 Mbps.
Just as with 5G, the growing number of fiber-to-the-home connections in metro neighborhoods will widen the digital divide.
Satellites to the rescue?
Rural Colorado may have to look up to the heavens for an answer to not being left behind yet again. Two weeks after T-Mobile announced it had lit up a slower version of 5G to cover broad swaths of the country, the FCC unveiled a grant to help reach the most isolated communities .
Through the CAF program, the FCC awarded $87.1 million to satellite broadband provider Viasat and others to help subsidize monthly bills to 123,000 underserved rural homes and businesses in 21 states.
Colorado's allocation included $7.2 million to Viasat to subsidize monthly broadband bills for up to 6,517 locations in Colorado over the next six years.
But as with T-Mobile, critics raised concerns. Viasat's service is considered slower, more costly and more restrictive on data usage. It is a "last-ditch" option for those with nothing else available, according to an article in Ars Technica .
Signals must travel high up, about 22,000 miles. The lag times or latency are severalfold higher than rival technologies, which can make gaming and video conferencing unworkable. By contrast, the fastest versions of 5G will have latency low enough that surgeons can operate on patients using robots located hundreds of miles away.
In its defense, Viasat is launching new satellites in 2021 and 2022 to boost both capacity and the speeds on its network. But they will remain way up there.
Satellite alternatives with faster speeds and less latency are in the works. SpaceX's Elon Musk and Amazon's Jeff Bezos plan to seed the skies with thousands of low-earth orbit satellites rapidly traveling 300 miles to 1,200 miles up.
SpaceX's Starlink project, which has applied to launch 12,000 satellites, and Amazon's Project Kuiper, with 3,236 satellites planned, are taking advantage of lower rocket launch costs and breakthroughs in small satellite technology. A third provider called OneWeb is also looking to launch hundreds of satellites.
Starlink can seed 60 satellites per launch and expects to complete enough launches to start selling broadband commercially in the U.S. by mid-2020. Musk sent his first tweet about the network in October.
Eventually, Starlink claims it will provide speeds of 1-gig, which would make it competitive with faster 5G and fiber-to-the-home, at least initially.
Putting aside concerns about polluting the sky with "fake stars" or the potential of creating a pinball alley of space junk, the new satellite networks could finally provide a lower cost and high-speed alternative reaching every "unreachable" corner.
"Americans who currently have no wired providers, or no providers at all, will have access to high-performing internet, bridging the digital divide and bringing around 10 million Americans up to speed with the rest of the nation," BroadbandNow predicted in a blog post .
And competition means lower prices. Two low-earth orbit satellite networks could save U.S. consumers, both rural and urban, $30 billion a year. If only one actually makes it, the savings would be closer to $18 billion, BroadbandNow estimates.
The share of homes using a smart phone exclusively for home broadband was updated.
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