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Comparative Analysis of Broadband Alternatives and Persistent Digital Divides

Fri, August 30, 10:30 to 11:00am, Marriott, Exhibit Hall B South

Abstract

Digital divides persist in many forms, both in the US and internationally. Despite recent increases in overall internet use—the ITU estimates 51.2 percent of the global population used the internet in the previous three months in December 2018—users are still concentrated in urban and industrial centers. The jump from 23.1 percent in 2008 is laudable, but a cursory examination shows the divide is alive and well. The developing world lags behind the developed world, at 45.3 to 80.9 percent in 2018, respectively. In the US, the FCC defines broadband at 25/3Mbps, but rural, tribal, and US territories are especially prone to an underdeveloped internet service environment. This pattern repeats itself across the globe.

Attempts to overcome divides vary across states due to ideology, the nature of telecommunications industries, and lack of technical expertise. In the US, attempts to close the digital divide have relied on the private marketplace to bring access to the underserved with limited success. Other states have funded projects in conjunction with the private sector to produce networks based on available spectrum to reach communities in isolated or difficult terrain.

Interest in understanding and overcoming these divides have waxed and waned. Policy or comparative studies about alternatives to fixed and mobile broadband are few and outdated. While some in the ITU have noted that mobile access is an attractive alternative to fixed connections (dial-up, DSL, cable, and fiber), Roetter (2013) and Napoli and Obar (2014) note that smartphone access has significant limitations. These include technological limits to how many people can make use of the network simultaneously and that smartphones are an inherently passive way to browse the web and users seldom create intricate content. Entrenched internet service providers (ISPs) are also actively working against alternatives to their services in the US. The fights against municipal broadband and for net neutrality ring of the populist sentiments against the status quo, elites, and their stranglehold over resources, and this also translates into the discussion about the proper state role in finding solutions to digital divides.

This paper will perform a comparative analysis of policies that promote the use of fixed wireless broadband (FWLB) as alternatives to fixed and mobile broadband. What kind of policies—state-driven, public-private partnerships, or private market—are better are providing access to these alternatives? It will also explore the technologies that make use of varying degrees of spectrum, and the degree to which cable or fiber ISPs help or hinder the rollout of these alternatives. It will make use of a mixed methodology that combines qualitative assessments of the efficacy of FWLB policy by interviewing providers and users in a rural US locale and abroad in addition to documentary analysis from relevant agencies like the FCC and their comparative equivalents. The study will also include a longitudinal analysis of the efficacy of policies aimed at making FWLB more widely available and how effective it has been at closing digital divides.

FWLB has the potential to overcome the physical and market barriers to wider broadband access. However, knowing which policies would be most conducive to this task is unclear even in 2019. Understanding how to deal with the persistence of the digital divide will help improve access for rural, isolated, or underprivileged communities worldwide.

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