Over 20 million people living in rural areas of our nation still lack an adequate internet connection. Closer to home, a more recent report from Virginia’s broadband chief advisor estimates that over 660,000 Virginia homes and businesses also are a part of this digital divide. Bridging this digital divide is critical to giving all Virginians access to the full benefits of healthcare, education, agriculture, economic development and more.
Public-private partnerships will be the key to meeting this challenge. While the private sector continues to play a critical role in closing the rural broadband gap through the development and deployment of new and innovative technologies and business models, the public sector also has an important role to play. There are three recommendations the public sector can consider that will help reach the goal of universal broadband access.
The first is to ensure that radio frequency (RF) spectrum is fairly and efficiently allocated for use for new broadband technologies. Spectrum describes the range of frequencies which wireless devices can use to transmit and receive information. Many of the new technologies being developed to fill the access gap will need cost-effective access to spectrum. Policy makers need to expand dynamic and opportunistic access to unused radio spectrum.
Second, there is a need for improved data collection around rural broadband coverage. The difficulty of precisely defining the scope of the unserved population has long hindered the availability of rural broadband. National, state and regional efforts to improve the collection and reporting on the availability of broadband coverage in rural counties is critical to supporting decisions by policy.
Finally, federal and state infrastructure investments should include targeted funds on a matching basis for the capital Investments that will best expand coverage into rural areas that currently lack broadband access. These funds should be made available for use by multiple technologies on the basis of the most cost-effective available including TV white space (TVWS), fixed wireless and satellite technology.
When all of these elements come together — regulatory changes that support new technologies; reliable data collection that help local plans identify specific needs, costs, and scoping; robust state funding to support infrastructure construction; and coordination of regional efforts through a state-level broadband team — the region and the commonwealth should be able to close the broadband connection gap and bring the benefits of this critical infrastructure to all Virginians.
The Center for Advanced Engineering & Research