Cheaper mobile internet infrastructure is connecting the world, but rural areas are proving to be a sticking point. Mobile broadband has driven the spread of the internet around the globe, with subscriptions growing 20 percent annually over the last five years and expected to reach 4.3 billion globally by the end of 2017, according to an annual report released July 31 by the United Nation’s ITU, an agency focused on information and communication technologies and infrastructure.
Mobile subscription’s dropping price and less intensive infrastructure buildout are spurring it to outpace fixed broadband’s expansion, which grew at 9 percent annually over the same time period, the report said.
Still, broadband access is hitting obstacles in permeating rural areas worldwide, with only 15 percent of households in the world’s least developed countries reporting internet access at home, the U.N. said.
Even in the U.S., lawmakers, the Trump administration, and private companies like Microsoft Corp. are increasingly calling for cost-effective ways to ensure rural areas can get connected and looking at infrastructure alternatives to fixed broadband.
The Federal Communications Commission deemed August as “Rural Broadband Month” to highlight its focus on the issue. Almost 40 percent of rural Americans, or 23 million people, lack broadband access of speeds of at least 25 megahertz, according to a 2016 report from the FCC.
Lower-cost mobile broadband was one solution discussed when FCC commissioners met with lawmakers for a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing July 25 on agency oversight. Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said mobile “has to be front and center” in efforts to connect rural Americans who might not be able to afford a fixed-internet line in addition to their phones.
Lawmakers also encouraged the FCC, in a July 31 letter, to look at using television white spaces to spread internet in rural areas. Forty-three members of the House Rural Broadband Caucus voiced their support for the solution, which uses the same spectrum as television channels, to deliver cost-effective broadband to rural areas with physical terrains that would prove an obstacle for mobile connections.
Microsoft, which has recently pushed the white spaces solution, has estimated this method could be about 80 percent less costly than using fiber cables alone, and over 50 percent cheaper than using current fixed wireless technology like 4G.
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