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The Urban Digital Divide – Eliminating the “Digital Deserts”

According to a recent report from the Brookings Institution, more than 18 million U.S. households in 2018 had no broadband service “at all.” Further, “the majority of digitally disconnected households live in metropolitan areas, and the gaps are especially large when comparing neighborhoods within the same place. Effectively, some residents live in digital poverty even as their neighbors thrive.” And “from dense urban cities to emerging exurban counties, 13.9 million metropolitan households live without an in-home or wireless broadband subscription…”.

This is a paradox as it is almost assumed these days that all metropolitan areas[1] in the US have extensive deployments of fiber optic networks. These are typically part of regional backbone networks that provide inter-city and cross country connections and then, within the city, they “branch out” to connect individual neighborhoods. Despite this extensive fiber footprint, there remain large pockets of underserved businesses and residences when it comes to the current definition of “true” broadband services provided to the end user by cable, FTTH, DSL or fixed wireless. This condition has resulted from various historical and economic reasons and does not “discriminate,” as it can apply to lower income neighborhoods or business districts with multi-story office buildings and other operations.

This “digital poverty” – or sometimes called “digital deserts” – is a recognized hindrance to economic growth and various initiatives with incentives are underway at the federal and state levels. The current global pandemic has aggravated this situation, as it has become increasingly clear over the last few months that demonstrating that “good enough” broadband for a non-COVID world does not come close to meeting the increased “need for speed” when people are staying at home, working from home, attending school from home, binge watching from home and visiting family and friends from home (“Zoom anyone?”). In particular, with schools closed and children distance learning, not having broadband is now not just critical but essential. Mayors across the country are dealing with this crisis and are searching for answers.

To remedy this situation, service providers and their OEM suppliers are designing in upgraded technologies such as FTTH and DOCSIS 3.0 and wireless providers are emphasizing the merits of mobile 5G technology. However, when it comes to 5G, the “fixed” variety has a clear advantage over mobile for the purposes of eliminating the digital deserts. Leading carriers in the US have conducted trials of fixed wireless access (FWA) broadband in several cities, using the mobile 5G “NR” (new radio) frequencies. However, the 5G NR bands actually have limited spectrum or bandwidth for FWA Gigabit speed services, whereas fixed 5G millimeter wave bands such as the V (60 GHz) and E (70/80 GHz) have vast swaths of available spectrum (e.g., from 5GHz to 14GHz contiguous, or a total of 24GHz), are virtually interference-free and are inexpensive to use as they are either license-free (V-band) or “lightly licensed” (E-band).

The following examples show how community leaders, council members and mayors alike are using V- and E-band mmWave to eliminate digital deserts and improve the quality of life for their constituents.

In Florida the Tampa Housing Authority (THA) resolved its urban digital divide dilemma with an innovative solution. When residents of the “Tempo” community, near downtown Tampa, found themselves quarantined, hundreds of them were without Internet connectivity due to financial restraints and limited service options. The THA owns and operates the Tempo and reached out to local company PBX-Change to boost Tempo’s broadband connectivity throughout the property.

PBX-Change offers advanced, high-speed telecommunications services to homes and businesses throughout the Tampa area. The company proposed a wireless solution to the THA, specifically a mmWave one based on Siklu’s EtherHaul™ 5500 product line. PBX-Change explained that it would then be possible to connect the Tempo back to their nearest fiber optic line POP, which was more than a mile away, with a 5Gbps Full duplex link. Furthermore, given the emergency conditions, the connection from the Tempo to an Internet POP needed have at least 5 Gigabits of capacity and quick installation.

The project started on June 22nd and less than a month later. This demonstrates again the efficacy of a mmWave solution as, for instance, connecting a fiber optic line to the facilities would have taken months and costed much more. The Tempo now offers Internet Access to its residents through a network of more than 200 WiFi APs covering 265,000 square feet. Supporting hundreds of users, retail operations and guests, the traffic generated by this WiFi network and the Tempo can be measured in Gigabits.
Our second example concerns the DigitalC initiative in Cleveland. DigitalC came out of the One Cleveland project in 2015 and carries on the latter’s mission to connect the citizens of Cleveland to true broadband services. Cleveland currently ranks in the top 5 of “least connected” cities in the US. More than 45,000 residents have no Internet connection at all and more than 30,000 residents in addition to that lack true broadband.

This situation developed in scattered pockets of the city, where wired infrastructure was poor or non-existent. And those conditions remained that way simply because people could not afford the $75/month that large service providers would charge for high speed Internet access. As a result, there was no financial incentive for these service providers to extend the fiber optic lines and other equipment into these areas in order to make available high speed offerings to these locations. The cost of trenching new fiber, the time it would take, resulted in an unattractive ROI and hence nothing was done.

And then COVID-19 hit and what was a problem became absolutely devastating – no broadband meant no work, no school. Thousands of students had no way to attend the virtual classes, all that were available. The school district in Cleveland and the mayor were trying to solve this issue with incumbent providers. But these were all wireline (cable/fiber) solutions which did not exist in these areas and would take months or more and millions of dollars to implement. Not to mention at a monthly price many cannot afford.

DigitalC knew about the capabilities of the fixed wireless access option, but had concerns about the viability of the legacy sub 6GHz equipment in the area. This band cannot support the Gigabits of capacity people need is susceptible to interference from a variety of Wi-Fi and other electronic sources. This interference deteriorates the signal quality or can even break the connection. However, wireless was the only option as the neighborhoods needing access had no infrastructure at all. No fiber, no backbone and especially no connectivity for the last 100 feet. Everything would have to be deployed from scratch.

DigitalC reached out to Siklu directly for help in not just supplying the wireless systems, but with network design and deployment, residential installation and service turn up. DigitalC relied upon Siklu to give them a complete, operational Gigabit network. DigitalC supplied the list of customers and where they lived – Siklu was responsible for the rest.

Reaching out to local contractors Siklu leveraged community resources to bring this vision to reality. As of November 2020 in little more than a few weeks more than 100 homes or MDUs are now enjoying high speed connectivity, many for the first time ever. Over the next few months DigitalC and Siklu will be working hard to bring true broadband to the 40,000 unconnected citizens of Cleveland. Demonstrating clearly the power of Fixed 5G – rapid time to market, extremely cost effective, and available to everyone.

 


[1]According to the US Census Bureau, a “statistical metropolitan area” (SMA) must have at least one urbanized area of 50,000 or more inhabitants. As of March 2020, there are 384 MSAs in the United States.

 

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