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COVID-19 exposed the urban broadband divide – here’s one way to close it (Reader Forum)

The COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered numerous truths about everyday life that were previously not given a second thought. An unlikely focal point of the pandemic has been broadband access. When stay-at-home orders were enforced globally, technology came to the rescue — but not for all. The FCC found that 6% of the U.S. population, equivalent to 19 million people, lacked access to fixed broadband services at threshold speeds.

While most people had no need to second guess the shift to remote work, school, and even entertainment, many others faced barriers and challenges when it came to broadband access. In Virginia, one in five K-12 and college students lacked either high-speed internet or a computer in their home, according to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Lack of broadband access is often thought of as a rural issue, but that only tells half the story.

Rural and urban neighborhoods are both facing a broadband divide

It’s critical to realize that both rural and urban neighborhoods experience a lack of broadband access. It’s also important to acknowledge the distinct challenges both groups face. Hurdles to achieving rural broadband connectivity lie primarily in a country’s infrastructure, where fiber-optic cable would need to be extended throughout the country to reach underserved rural areas.

Most cities are not facing this issue — many telecom companies have already installed fiber and cable underground. Yet, not all urban households have broadband access. The U.S. Census Bureau found that 13.6 million urban households are without a broadband connection, compared to 4.6 million rural households.

So, what’s stopping urban households from accessing broadband? For many, it’s affordability, not availability. With cables already in the ground, the way to overcome broadband’s affordability and accessibility issue is for telcos to lower the costs of delivering and operating their services.

Using disaggregation to make broadband more available and more affordable

If there are any silver linings to come out of the pandemic, it’s the fact that it’s highlighted how  broadband access is a necessity, not a luxury. Now is the time for telcos to turn to new technologies, such as network disaggregation, to close the urban broadband divide. Disaggregation allows for a “mix and match” between hardware and software, so they can be sourced from many different vendors at much lower costs.

Disaggregation also saves costs down the road. Since the hardware and software aren’t packaged together, it’s simple to replace the software without any overhaul of the hardware. Ripping out hardware can be extremely costly — recently, the FCC allocated $1.9B for small telecom companies to replace hardware equipment from Chinese vendors that were deemed national security risks. Disaggregation also removes the power that supplier monopolies once held by controlling both software and hardware, which will lead to lower prices long-term.

Lastly, urban neighborhoods would see improved scaling capabilities with the implementation of disaggregated networks. Disaggregation lets a provider add low-cost white boxes to their network and simply turn on new software licenses when it needs to grow. This is especially appealing to urban neighborhoods that are rapidly increasing in population.

In an ideal world, where someone lives should not dictate the level of broadband access they have access to. The facts show that rural and urban neighborhoods can both lack adequate broadband access, but for almost entirely different reasons. While the country waits for an approved infrastructure bill to determine whether or not rural broadband access will be built out, we don’t necessarily need to wait around to improve urban access. Solutions such as network disaggregation are readily available to provide urban households with quality and affordable broadband access.

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