July 15, 2021

Broadband Infrastructure

By Deborah Acosta

There are many stories about impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on revealing the digital divide for all to see. When I reflect over the past year, the story that stands out for me is that of Russian student Alexei Dudoladov. This 21-year old student at the Omsk Institute of Water Transport was, like so many of his global peers, forced to return to his home, a remote Siberian village, and continue his classes online.

Turns out, connecting to the internet wasn’t so simple for Alexei. What’s wrong with this picture?

Alexei Dudoladov, student and popular blogger, is seen on a birch tree for better cellular network coverage in his remote Siberian village of Stankevichi, Russian November 13, 2020. REUTERS/Alexey Malgavko. 

“I need to go into the forest 300 metres from the village and climb a birch tree that is eight-metres high… and I get on Zoom to speak to professors and prove that I am not skipping class for no reason,” he said. His Tik-Tok and Instagram pleas for an improvement to the 2G internet access his village now has been viewed by millions. However, instead of improved internet access, Omsk authorities gave young Alexei an “individualized study plan”.  

Lest we dismiss this with a “Well, but that’s Russia”, let’s look at some U.S. data. You already know that the pandemic drove many commercial, educational, and social activities online. Does every American have equal access to the speedy internet connections needed to participate in a digital ecosystem? And what does broadband infrastructure have to do with it?  

Pew Research survey conducted in April 2020 revealed that U.S. households generally agree reliable internet access is at least somewhat important. The survey also found that low-income households suffer from inadequate internet access more than the general population:

Salinas, CA: Two girls accessing Taco Bell wifi to do their homework. 
  • roughly half of U.S. adults found the internet essential during the pandemic and another 34% described it as “important but not essential”;
  • 21% of parents with homebound schoolchildren could not guarantee their children access to a computer for long-distance learning; 22% have to use public wi-fi to finish homework; 29% report their children may have to use a cell phone to complete homework.

Who is surprised to learn that lower-income parents were not this optimistic? 

  • 43% of lower-income parents said their children were likely to use a cellphone to complete schoolwork; 
  • 40% report the likelihood their children will use public-wifi to complete schoolwork;
  • 36% say it is at least somewhat likely their children do not have a computer at home to access schoolwork. 

Just a few more numbers: Approximately 5 million rural households do not have access to broadband. However, this problem is three times as large in urban areas (yes even in Silicon Valley), with around 15 million urban or metro households lacking broadband. 

You get the picture – Americans have not been equitably prepared for a sharp turn into the digital era. Why is this important? 

Let’s start with a brief history lesson:

The ability to transport goods and people is key to the economic development of modern cultures, including that of the United States. During the 1700’s, most nonindigenous North Americans lived near the Atlantic Coast or near river systems. Cities grew adjacent to waterways to facilitate the shipping of goods and people. 

The 1800’s witnessed growth of graded roads and railroads, facilitating regional commerce. In 1811, the federal government began infrastructure investment in its first major highway, the Cumberland Road.  The first major railway was built in 1827, connecting Baltimore to the Ohio River. The first U.S. transcontinental railroadwas completed in 1869. Where people needed access to transportation, cities grew.

Then came the internet, offering a very different way to connect people and things: Broadband infrastructure, sometimes called the “21st – century information superhighway”. Solutions to the idea of creating worldwide networks of information eluded scientists like Nicola Tesla (remember his name, important figure in a future podcast!) in the early 1900’s. Then, in October 1969, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) delivered its first message from a research lab at UCLA to one at Stanford. The internet was born. 

Since the 1970’s, the internet has morphed into a digital information superhighway. Data increasingly shows that access to this superhighway drives GDP and job growth. Poor – or no – internet access limits personal and professional opportunities for people and businesses and limits the ability of city leaders to provide essential, resilient, and regenerative services. 

There’s a lot of reasons for inequitable access, which Anna and I scratched the surface of in today’s podcast – stay tuned. It may be that a proposed federal U.S. broadband infrastructure plan will invest in connecting more people to broadband in cities like yours. How can you make sure your City leaders are positioned to take advantage of opportunities to “future-proof” your community? Knowledge is key! 

Let’s start with the simple stuff: how you connect to the internet at home. The broadband technologies that connect your home to the internet are constantly advancing. My home’s smart devices have a fast connection to the internet over a wireless mesh network (shout out to Monkey Brains!) – technology that five years ago the general industry insisted was impractical to deploy on a mass scale. 

What type/s of infrastructure delivers broadband in your city?

  • Digital Subscriber Line (DSL): Transmits data faster over copper telephone lines.
  • Cable Modem: Enables cable operators to provide broadband over the same coaxial cables that deliver sound and pictures to your TV set.
  • Wireless: Internet connection uses radio link between the customer’s location and the service provider’s facility, either mobile or fixed.
  • Satellite: Another form of wireless broadband, satellites are effective in serving remote or sparsely populated areas
  • Broadband Over Powerline (BPL): A technology struggling to find its place, speeds are comparable to DSL and cable modem speeds. Its potential lies in fact that power lines are installed virtually everywhere and into every American home. 
  • Fiber Optics: This tech converts electrical signals to light, sending the light through transparent glass fibers about the diameter of a human hair. Fiber transmits data at speeds far exceeding current DSL or cable modem speeds – the holy grail of fast internet connections. For example, the Lit San Leandronetwork, developed through a public private partnership (PPP) in my hometown of San Leandro, CA, offers speeds up to 10 megabits per second (mbps), about 2,000 times the speed of a DSL or cable modem connection, enabling transformation of city services and its economy. 

Be curious – how do you connect to the internet? Does your city have a municipal telecommunications network, or are residents dependent on privately owned Independent Service Operators (ISP) like Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, etc.? An easy way to begin your local research is to click on this Indicators of Broadband Need Map, provided by the federal National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). Put in your address – and let us know what you found. Were you surprised?