Why should we care about the digital divide?
Think about Australia: golden beaches, incredible wildlife, friendly people. Now imagine that none of those friendly Australians had internet access; that’s almost 25 million people. Seems unbelievable, right? But in 2022, it was estimated that between 23-25 million Americans were either underserved, or completely unserved, by broadband internet services – that’s equivalent to the entire population of Australia. Now let’s think about what being without reliable internet could mean to those people: for a start, restricted access to information, services and opportunities, which we know often compounds other inequities: this is the digital divide. Without reliable broadband access, millions of people and businesses are lacking something the rest of us simply take for granted. And that’s why it’s so vital to bridge the digital divide.
Two of the major factors influencing the digital divide are geography, and cost. Outside major urban areas, population density drops significantly and the relative cost of installing fixed infrastructure, such as fiber, in these areas can often be too expensive. Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) using extended-range millimeter-wave (mmWave) is one solution to bridging the divide and providing access to all. In partnership with Ericsson, UScellular was one of the first service providers to offer an innovative solution deploying 5G extended-range mmWave. As Mike Irizarry, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of UScellular, noted: “…closing the digital divide in America is a top priority for us…we think it’s the right thing to do, to make sure everyone in our country has access to high-speed internet services.” This is a sentiment we at Ericsson certainly echo, and this alignment has helped our partnership work towards these shared goals.
In April 2022, UScellular launched its 5G mmWave high-speed internet service within 10 cities, and now there are nearly 180,000 suburban and rural US households within range of this service. Having been fortunate enough to work in telecommunications for several decades, we can recall those few rare occasions where we have closely witnessed how a technology, after several years of very limited growth, reaches an inflection point and adoption takes off. This is exactly what we are experiencing in the global FWA market today. With 5G, the FWA use case has simply become so good in terms of performance and cost that it becomes a superior alternative to broadband in many deployments. In this context, we’re encouraged by seeing how UScellular, and Ericsson, have taken a step further in bridging the digital divide with their innovative extended-range mmWave 5G FWA functionality.
One of the key requirements for UScellular’s 5G FWA offering was that it would include future-proof technology, enabling cost-efficient delivery of broadband services. To help achieve this, Ericsson and UScellular proposed siting equipment on existing assets such as macro sites and radio towers, thereby reducing the need to construct new infrastructure and ensuring costs remained viable. The ability to perform additional tasks over a 5G network provides flexibility within the same platform that offers multiple services, from fixed wires to improved mobile broadband. This supports an expanding ecosystem of devices and applications, adding another future-proof feature.
Ericsson has undertaken several field tests, both in the US and in other parts of the world, to determine how far a radio signal on mmWave frequencies can propagate and what data rates can be expected at this range. These field tests showed that, in the right conditions, it is possible to achieve download data rates larger than 1 Gbps at a cell range beyond 7 km. We are further encouraged to see how this new innovative solution from Ericsson has extended the range of mmWave from 600–900 m to over 5 km in UScellular’s commercial network. As the extended-range mmWave FWA works on a line-of-sight principle, having mid-band solutions operating from the same infrastructure ensures coverage, expanding choice and access for businesses and consumers.
One example of a crucial industry affected by the digital divide is farming. According to data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than 90 percent of Iowa’s 86,104 farms are family owned. These family-run farms can reap the rewards of precision agriculture, and a connected farm, by using broadband access as a foundation. Combining the accessibility of mmWave FWA together with the mid-band layer can certainly benefit independent farm owners in areas like Iowa, as it can provide access to virtual services. But this connectivity can also be a catalyst for innovation, for technification, and for bringing solutions that ultimately increase productivity in the field. In fact, we saw some of these opportunities in action at the 2022 Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa. This included demonstrations of autonomous grain carts employing cellular wireless connectivity and the use of multispectral computer vision to access canopy health, and information such as nitrogen deficiency, disease identification, weed detection and soil water content. For the hundreds of independent farmers in Iowa, these are crucial components that allow for a more efficient operation, using fixed wireless as the channel.
Another industry that can benefit from FWA is telemedicine; something that is becoming more popular across the country. But telemedicine can offer rural American much more than just convenience and may even be the best option for healthcare moving forward. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, Americans who live in rural areas are on average 10.5 miles away from the nearest hospital, which is around twice as far away – and five to seven minutes longer travel time – than for people who live in urban and suburban areas. Therefore it is imperative that we recognize the importance of having access to a broadband connection, and how fixed wireless can be an additional tool or can even supplement what other technologies may offer. But keep in mind that fixed wireless offers another degree of flexibility as it allows for a wider coverage area: one of the obstacles that must be overcome. So let’s not only consider FWA but also the significance of broadband wireless as an enabler of future-looking applications in remote communities. For example, broadband-connected ambulances, or remote health centers where ultrasound or X-rays could be sent to emergency physicians to help with diagnosis and treatment.
By pushing the boundaries of FWA, the partnership between Ericsson and UScellular has increased the area served by mmWave by 40 times, redefining the value of the mmWave spectrum. Using Ericsson’s ground-breaking technology, UScellular can now provide consumers in rural areas with a cost-effective, easy-to-install solution, delivering speeds of up to 300 Mbps and can also provide users with a 10–15 times speed increase compared to its 4G LTE home internet offering. This new service can deliver high-speed, low-latency broadband services to previously underserved regions, benefitting the consumers in the area, changing lives, opening up opportunities, and bridging the digital divide still further.
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