Tools and Weapons Review Part 3: How to Level the Playing Field for All Internet Users


Rural Broadband: The Electricity of the Twenty-First Century

Electricity is truly one of humanity’s most impactful and profound discoveries. We’ve successfully harnessed electrons to rid our world of darkness at a moment’s notice, communicate with other people over large distances, drive our cars, restart human hearts, and so much more. The harnessing of electricity has been an innovation that has seen no bounds. It has wove itself into the very fabric of humanity and had drastic effects that one no could have possibly predicted.

Electricity was not, and still continues to not, be an overnight adoption for all. Innovations in urban settings took decades to be adopted by rural populations. This uneven transition had to do with a complicated array of factors but a big proponent was return on investment. Where in urban environments, electrical companies could reach a large number of customers with a small run of cabling, in rural settings large amounts of capital investment had to be made to reach a small number of customers.

A very similar transition has occurred with the adoption of the internet. Wherein many residents of cities have access to high speed network connections for a relatively low cost (due to economies of scale), the same rules do not necessarily apply to the installation of internet runs in rural communities. This has left rural populations at a huge disadvantage in terms of the empowering access of the internet. Many rural areas of the United States are left to struggle with slow speeds provided by existing phone lines or paying for limited and expensive satellite or LTE plans. The cost vs reward for traditional cable companies to run their services into rural communities has not been rewarding enough to rapidly deploy the core infrastructure needed.

As Brad Smith discusses, the internet, and especially high speed internet, has become the electricity conundrum of the modern age. Microsoft has taken huge steps in partnerships to begin deploying fixes for these communities including the deployment of coverage via TV white spaces technology to remove the need for expensive capital investments.

Another interesting strategy to bring broadband connection to not just rural areas in the United States, but potentially the entire world, is the deployment of satellite mesh networks by companies like SpaceX’s Starlink. These networks will in theory solve many of the problems of traditional satellite internet which has been tradionally provided via geostationary platforms.

In rating internet connections there are two key factors to consider. The first of these is commonly referred to as speed. This refers to the throughput which is how much data can be transferred at one time over a connection. The second consideration is the latency or response time of the network. A major problem with geostationary satellites is that they have to be very far away from Earth in order to lock into a stationary orbit. This requires more powerful communication devices to connect with these satellites and the communication delay (or latency) becomes very noticeable. This results in low throughput and slow responses which hampers many applications of the internet in the modern age. The cost of putting these satellites in orbit is also very high which ends up distributing the cost across the users and causes prices for these services to be high as well.

Satellite mesh networks aim to solve all of these problems. The idea here is to launch a large number of satellites (thousands and potentially tens of thousands) into circular orbits. This allows the satellites to be deployed much closer to the Earth (1/8 the distance) and decreases not only latency but also the maximum throughput. As satellites move out of transmission range from the connection on the ground, the ground station (which will be similar to a cable modem) will be automatically routed to another satellite in range.

These satellite mesh networks have the potential to connect the entire world to an internet connection that has high throughput, low latency, and high redundancy (due to the scale of deployment).

In order to level the playing field in terms of access to the internet, these, and other, technology innovations will need to be put in place.

As Brad Smith puts it:

“Ultimately, we need a national crusade to focus on and close the broadband gap. We need to recognize that, as was the case with electricity, a country separated by broadband availability will remain a nation more divided overall.” - Tools and Weapons pg. 163

The time is now to focus on bringing these rural communities, not just the United States but worldwide, the opportunities that come with full access to the information age. They have many valuable ideas and things to offer the rest of the world and it is important to provide them the same opportunities awarded to the rest of the world.

Learn more about Microsoft’s Rural Broadband Program: