A new consortium plans to develop a blueprint utilizing an assortment of broadband technologies to help bridge the digital divide in rural communities, starting with real-world testbeds in Mississippi and Alabama.
Members of the collaboration include regional fixed and wireless broadband provider C Spire, Microsoft, Nokia, Airspan Networks, and Siklu.
The effort will involve testing and implementing different technologies to deliver broadband, along with new service and construction models. The group said it will also propel new models for coordination among regional fixed and wireless internet service providers, and utilities, among others.
Over an 18-month period, the consortium will run a series of studies and open workshops in Mississippi and Alabama, using the shared learnings to help build a blueprint for broadband affordability and adoption in rural communities.
According to the FCC’s 2018 fixed broadband map, broadband (FCC uses a benchmark of greater than or equal to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps) is not available to 24.7 million people. However, internal Microsoft data from September 2018 indicates that 162.8 million people in the U.S. do not use the internet at broadband speeds. The consortium said the digital divide is particularly acute in states like the testbed locations, where nearly a third of rural residents have no access to basic broadband.
“Our nation’s broadband adoption gap is a solvable problem that will not be limited in the next few years by the coming breath of new technologies themselves, but rather how well we facilitate them to scale at the edge,” said C Spire Chief Innovation Officer Craig Sparks, in a statement. “Hyperlocal collaboration and highly automated tools combined with these easy-to-deploy network technologies are going to be key enablers,” he added. “C Spire’s intent is to bring the thought leaders in this consortium together to disrupt our own thinking in these areas.”
The consortium plans to find solutions that can scale not only in regional testbeds, but across the country on a national level.
“The advent of new access technology will change everything – economies, the way we do business and the way we interact,” said Chris Stark, head of North American Strategy and Business Development for Nokia. “It is important to consider how smaller communities can benefit from this revolution and that they cannot be left behind as an afterthought. The digital divide is real and likely to grow to a chasm for those communities unable to gain access to these advances.”
C Spire will kick off the initiative this week, hosting the International Wireless Industry Consortium’s “Enhancing Rural Connectivity, New Wireless Opportunities and Deployment Scenarios” workshop in New Orleans. More details are expected to be shared at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next month.
Microsoft joined the consortium as part of its Airband Initiative, which launched in 2017, and after one year increased the project’s goal to bring broadband to Americans in rural communities to 3 million by July 2022. The project aims to use various technologies, including unlicensed TV white space spectrum.
“It’s time to close the broadband gap for rural America,” noted Shelley McKinley, Microsoft’s head of Technology and Corporate Responsibility. “Piloting new technology approaches, including TV white spaces, will help rural communities in Mississippi. Sharing these learnings will help accelerate broadband connectivity in rural communities everywhere. And with connectivity, comes new and greater opportunities for students, farmers, educators, business owners and communities in rural areas to access the technology and digital skills needed to learn, grow, contribute and prosper in a digital economy.”
Separately, C Spire recently announced it launched 5G millimeter wave fixed wireless service in early December for residents in a Harrison County subdivision near the city of Gulfport, Miss. The service uses 28 GHz equipment from Phazr, and results have shown residents experiencing download speeds of up to 750 Mbps, peak upload speeds of 600 Mbps, and latency as low as 8 milliseconds.