Bo Larsson is the CEO of MatSing. Developing a new approach for high-performance, high-capacity lens antenna design.
From both a rural and urban perspective, United States wireless carriers and state and local governments are running into a shortage of broadband capacity that has left questions open as to how to expand internet and mobile access to all. Nineteen million Americans still lack access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds according to the Federal Communications Commission, and independent research from BroadbandNow puts that number even higher at 42 million. Within both of these figures, one of the largest areas without internet access is in rural communities, where according to the FCC, nearly one quarter of the population does not have access to broadband service, with the high cost of installation often preventing wider access to fast internet. In a similar way that “food deserts,” or lack of access to a grocery store or fresh food, can plague Americans, “net deserts” also affect a significant portion of Americans.
As leading figures across industries, business leaders and entrepreneurs should have a vested interest in these communities gaining the access they deserve. The number of Americans without access to broadband service represent anywhere from 5.8% to 12.8% of America’s population based on the figures above. These are your consumers. When granted access to the internet, they can become acquainted with your business and the products or services you provide.
The Biden administration has made affordable broadband a top priority to extend fast internet in every home, and even as debate over the exact amount of support continues, questions of implementation remain. How exactly will we begin to close the broadband gap? It’s toward the solving of this problem that the auctioning of the C-Band was enacted. But even with C-Band (5G) spectrum now available and under active testing, it will still require equipment to get the most out of it. There hasn’t been one clear solution to achieve this, with a lot of local players and systems not designed for rural areas success making little or no ground. Cell site acquisition is difficult, so theoretically, a solution that can bring broadband access to many across multiple frequencies and with less sites may be the winning solution.
Exacerbating the problem is the growing need for mobile capacity: the ability to have multiple data-transmitting beams in a covered area to meet the demand of a smartphone-equipped population with new apps that chew through data. Coverage is simply the question of whether you have data transmitted to an area. Capacity is the more important question of whether you have enough data transmitted to an area to meet demand.
Because of this, there are multiple schools of thought on how to resolve this problem. A popular solution that’s been proposed is building more traditional antenna arrays. These antennas have become popular because they cover nearly every frequency and can easily be commercially acquired. In addition, they can be designed to meet the needs of most climates. On the other hand, they require a lot of equipment in the form of mega towers and installation sites. These can be hard to build and hard to maintain, particularly in rural areas of the country.
By comparison, lens antennas create wide broadband access with fewer installation sites, meaning less interference from multiple frequencies and a greener solution that matches the goals of many major wireless carriers to be carbon neutral in the next 15 to 20 years. As the CEO of a lens antenna solution provider, I’ve identified three advantages: the ability to provide broadband coverage, the ability to emit and maintain multiple beams and the ability to do this all with clean signals free of interference. The low level of equipment needed for lens antenna deployments sets it apart as a cost-effective solution. However, current lens antenna solutions are still relatively new and are facing a healthy dose of skepticism as big telecom players are just getting to know the technology, so this solution is still on the path to mainstream acceptance.
Another current trend in securing broadband access can be found in beamforming — or focusing a wireless signal at a particular receiving device rather than having the signal spread. In theory, this leads to a more direct and faster data transfer with a reduction in errors. While this may seem like a perfect solution, the large amount of computing equipment and technician work required can outweigh its advantages.
How Businesses Can Get Involved
While these solutions go a long way in improving internet infrastructure capabilities, this is merely the first step toward bridging the digital divide. In order to eliminate the divide for good, further actions need to be taken; the most critical in my view will be to improve the affordability of internet service. It’s no secret that technology can be an extensive cost. To help offset this, business leaders should explore different financing options and assistance. I believe the broadband plans currently being implemented will only go so far without the strength of the business community backing it.
Of course, this is not a challenge free ask. Taking an initial deficit does not always seem like the smartest decision and is often met with a lot of controversy. In this case, the amount of consumers that business could be set to gain could easily counteract the initial cost over time. As they become engaged users, they also start to explore what’s possible with different companies’ services.
All of this aside, I believe the most important thing we can do at the moment is acknowledge the problem. It can be easy to forget about these communities if we’re not directly part of them, but they are a significant part of our population. Without this critical infrastructure in place, these communities aren’t given access to what has become an essential need, especially within the past year. By listening to them and their stories, we’re already making the first step toward success.