Every year I write a blog at Thanksgiving talking about the things in our industry for which I am thankful. Most years, this is easy because there are always a lot of great things happening in the broadband industry. But 2021 has been hard for a lot of the folks in the broadband industry. I was deeply touched this year by many of the stories I heard during the pandemic. I heard from a rural high school principal who was upset because 9% of the students in his school disappeared when learning went virtual. I talked to a librarian who was distraught watching students sit outside her library in the snow all day to keep up with virtual schoolwork.
Please feel free to comment at the end of this blog about events this year in the broadband industry for which you are thankful.
ARPA Grants Provide Local Solutions. The ARPA grants given directly to local governments are a breath of fresh air in an industry where only carriers have been able to get government funding for broadband projects. Towns, cities, and counties can use this money to solve the most pressing broadband problems in their community – rural residents with no broadband options, low-income neighborhoods that have been left behind, or retail shopping districts that ISPs have ignored. It’s too bad that it took a pandemic to try the idea of empowering local communities to tackle the problems that are specific to their communities.
Finally, an Emphasis on the Digital Divide. The recently enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) created two new grant programs to address digital equity and inclusion. Together these provide $2.75 billion in grants to tackle the digital divide. We’ve been talking about the digital divide for at least fifteen years, and this is the first significant effort to try to include everybody in the digital economy. It’s hard to imagine being digitally illiterate in today’s economy since so much of daily life is now online.
Technologies Continue to Improve. As I look around the industry, I can see that every broadband technology is getting better. There are scientists and engineers continuing to improve the performance and speeds of the technology that fuels our broadband. We’re seeing a new generation of fiber PON, better fixed wireless radios, a new generation of DOCSIS, and better cellular technology. These will all fuel better broadband.
Improved Cellular Speeds. This might seem like an odd thing to be thankful for. But much of the country saw big leaps in cellular data speeds in 2021 as the cellular carriers launched the new spectrum bands being labeled as 5G. The immediate impact of the upgrades is a giant leap in bandwidth, which makes life easier for a lot of homes without a landline broadband connection. More importantly, the major cellular carriers are all launching unlimited-usage broadband plans using the new cellular spectrum. The new spectrum will enable functional broadband in rural homes close enough to a cell tower. In cities, the faster cellular offers an affordable broadband alternative to those who can’t afford cable company broadband.
Infrastructure Funding? I was a little hesitant to put this on the list. I think we’re going to have to wait for a decade to find out if throwing the huge sum of $42.5 billion at rural broadband is really going to work. I have no doubt that this will make broadband better for huge parts of the country. But I also worry that much of the money will go to the projects that fail or to the giant ISPs who will not be the good stewards of the funding in rural areas. I’m also doubtful about the FCC being able to improve the mapping quickly enough so that communities are not left behind by this funding. Since this is once-in-a-generation funding, I’m happy for the millions of folks who will get better broadband but worried about those won’t.
It’s a Good Year to be a Consultant. I’m not going to kid you, it’s a nice year to be a consultant and to be in high demand. But it’s also a frustrating year. I’ve had to say no to many projects where I know I could have provided the solution clients are seeking. There have been recent weeks when a dozen potential projects came to my attention – and it’s frustrating to have to say no.