Disney+ joined the digital streaming services wars last week and had 10 million subscribers on the first day, but for many Americans with little to no access to reliable broadband internet, the streaming trend presents one more barrier to entry.

The digital divide is closing, however, with the number of Americans lacking access to a fixed broadband connection dropping to 21.3 million Americans at the end of 2017, from 26.1 million at the end of 2016, according to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2019 Broadband Deployment Report. Of that figure, approximately 4.3 million Americans are in rural America.

Fixed broadband must meet the FCC’s benchmark of at least 25 MBPs down and 3 Mbps up. The number of rural Americans with access to at least 250 Mbps/25 Mbps broadband high speed service increased by 85.1% in 2017 to 191.5 million, the FCC report notes.

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The report also found that both large and small broadband providers deployed fiber networks to 5.9 million new homes in 2018, the largest number ever recorded. Yet, more than 19 million Americans still lack access to broadband—and the vast majority live in rural communities, according to a recently released study by the Fiber Broadband Association.

The FBA maintains that 24% of rural Americans lack access to 25 Mbps service, while less than 2% of urban Americans lack this same broadband access. “Deploying fiber in rural communities will be a key step to solving the digital divide in the United States,” the study noted.

The rural digital divide

Greater access means the ability for more Americans to participate in cultural, societal, political and economic activity. Unified access network provider Calix is partnering with local broadband providers and cooperatives across the country to help the cities and towns it says are deemed unprofitable by bigger companies connect to the internet.

“The FCC reports that more than 21 million Americans still lack access to critical broadband services,” says Alan DiCicco, senior director of solutions marketing at Calix.

“This US digital divide directly impacts the education of young Americans and access to healthcare for these families,” DiCicco maintains. “Most rural areas are affected by this problem, but the issue is more pronounced in the central and mountain states, where subscriber density is extremely low.”

There is a detrimental “hidden” effect of the digital streaming wars, which have shined a spotlight on the lack of reliable high-speed broadband in rural America, according to DiCicco.

“While the streaming platforms will dynamically adjust the video image quality to match the available bandwidth, the reduced image quality literally puts the lack of high-speed broadband in the face of the subscriber,” he says. “No one wants to watch the equivalent of a VHS tape on a 4K HD television, but that’s the experience for many rural Americans.”

How to get on the (broad) bandwagon

Calix is partnering with local communications service providers, such as small telcos, municipalities, electric cooperatives, and wireless ISPs, to deliver what DiCicco calls “a superior broadband experience.” The company is also teaming with consulting engineering firms to work with new small operators to design and build the networks using a combination of fiber and fixed wireless technologies, he says.

Rural fiber broadband networks are challenging for large incumbent service providers because the architectures/designs that work well in urban areas are typically too costly for rural builds, and the ROI does not meet aggressive investor-owned company expectations, he explains.

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This is not the case for local providers, DiCicco says. “Local not-for-profit entities like municipalities and electric cooperatives often have existing infrastructure they can leverage to reduce costs, and they have longer ROI tolerance, which allows them to invest in fiber projects for the long-term viability and economic development benefits of the community.”

Calix advocates the use of fiber to the home (FTTH) solutions for their “clear long-term advantages in performance and cost,” DiCicco says. But when FTTH is not possible, often, hybrid fiber/wireless solutions will be used to close the physical or economic gap, he says.

But the FBA says it is on pace to deploy all-fiber networks to half of all US households by 2025, and it is achievable to reach 90% of all US households in the next decade if current spending is increased by about an additional $70 billion.

“Building all-fiber networks throughout America is not a pipe dream,” said Lisa R. Youngers, president and CEO of the FBA, in a statement. “We have long known that having access to all-fiber networks is far superior than other technologies in driving economic growth, social interaction, and political engagement. Now we know that deploying all-fiber networks to most parts of the country within the next decade is feasible.”

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