If you could bring a science fiction author from the 1950s to the present, they’d probably think most of their predictions had come true. Just look around: self-driving cars, virtual reality, robotic surgery. In our homes and pockets, powerful computers put millions of libraries’ worth of information at our fingertips. Best of all, that wealth of digital knowledge is accessible to anyone, anywhere.
Well, let’s back up. You’d have to explain to your wide-eyed time traveler that, in theory, anyone can access those digital services. But in practice, millions still go without due to a lack of internet access. “Wait,” they might ask, “I can have my lunch delivered by a robot, but schoolkids still can’t get online to do their homework? Really?” Yes, you’d have to admit, really.
Even in today’s most technologically advanced regions, reliable broadband is still out of reach for millions of households. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), nearly 17 million schoolchildren lack home internet access. This “Digital Divide” is a serious problem in the best of times. In the worst—say, during a pandemic—it’s potentially catastrophic. It’s also a problem that’s been maddeningly difficult to solve, despite years of trying by the government and industry. Until now.
Today, cities and school districts are turning to a new tool to connect their communities: private wireless. Using Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) technology, they’re bringing reliable, sustainable internet access to families who need it most. And they might just be showing how we can bridge the Digital Divide for good.
Bridging the Gap
Bringing reliable, high-performing internet access to everyone has always been a challenge. In denser, wealthier urban and suburban areas, the economics of investing in last-mile broadband infrastructure are straightforward. But more sparsely populated and economically disadvantaged communities continue to lag.
According to the Pew Research Center, 44% of adults in households with incomes below $30,000—and 40% of schools nationwide—still don’t have broadband. As classes, homework, and school programs continue to expand online, this gap puts millions of students at risk of getting left behind. Government and industry have partnered for years to try to close the Digital Divide, but the issue persists, especially in lower-income neighborhoods.
You might think that growth in wireless technologies would make this easier. But despite many attempts, previous wireless solutions haven’t been able to fix the problem. Wi-Fi, for example, tends to have serious coverage issues and performance gaps. It can work well covering a building, but it’s proven not very effective or economical at connecting entire communities.
Cellular services from mobile carriers have their own issues. Typical deployment models, based on Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS), have multi-million-dollar price tags and can take a year or more to implement. Even if a community gets help with deployment costs, high ongoing fees to use that LTE/5G spectrum (which carriers have invested billions to acquire) make this option economically unsustainable for many lower-income neighborhoods.
So, the problem persists. But, what if there were a way to combine the free spectrum of Wi-Fi with the improved coverage, reliability, and privacy of cellular? Now there is, with private wireless.
Connecting Communities with CBRS
As one of the newest entrants to the wireless landscape, private wireless technology can offer a compelling alternative. These solutions use CBRS—part of the 3.5 GHz spectrum band that the FCC set aside to serve as the “Innovation Band” for new wireless initiatives. The technology is already living up to its billing, as carriers, device-makers, cloud providers, and others have begun rolling out all manner of new private wireless solutions. The most revolutionary aspect of CBRS, however, may be its ability to bridge the Digital Divide in ways that previous technologies could not.
When communities and school districts use private wireless, they can get connected much more quickly and reliably, in a much more economically sustainable way. These solutions offer:
- Better performance: CBRS uses “mid-band” wireless spectrum, which provides excellent coverage across large, distributed areas, and reliable and consistent performance—even in places where Wi-Fi suffers significant interference. All of this means that CBRS can reach students in their homes, no matter where they live, and easily get them online.
- Community-centric deployment: Unlike cellular DAS and even Wi-Fi, school districts and neighborhoods don’t need to invest in a huge, expensive new network architecture. In many cases, private wireless can piggyback on existing infrastructure—in buildings, on light poles, even on the roofs of affordable housing complexes—at a much lower cost than other options.
- Increased privacy and security: These networks are private by design—unlike public networks, where prying eyes might be able to see IP addresses and other network elements. But unlike carriers’ 5G/LTE networks, they’re controlled by the communities deploying them, so they can fully integrate with a district’s security and privacy compliance systems.
- Technology flexibility: One big advantage of the broad industry adoption we're seeing for CBRS is that it's now possible to mix and match private wireless with other technologies to address different needs. For example, some communities use CBRS to provide longer-range, better-penetrating connectivity across a neighborhood but terminate it with Wi-Fi gateways in schools and homes. Students get simple access from their Wi-Fi-enabled devices, plus the strong, reliable connectivity that comes with CBRS.
A Sustainable Solution
The biggest gamechanger for private wireless, however, has to be the economics. In terms of deployment costs, these networks can start on the order of tens of thousands of dollars versus millions for cellular DAS. But the real savings come from CBRS wireless spectrum, which is free to use. Communities and school districts invest in building the private wireless infrastructure and typically pay a partner to maintain it for them. But with no need to contribute to a carrier's multi-billion-dollar spectrum fees, recurring monthly costs are far lower. In early deployments, one school district covered communities at a fraction of the cost of traditional Internet access choices.
For all these reasons, private wireless is proving to be an extremely attractive option to bridge the Digital Divide. Communities across the country are actively exploring this option—and finding that with lower-cost CBRS technology, they can make government funding grants stretch a lot farther than they realized.
Bottom line, we may not have solved the Digital Divide just yet, but private wireless is bringing us closer than ever. So, if you run into any time-traveling authors, you can tell them that universal access to digital information won’t be science fiction for long.
Chris Swan is Chief Commercial Officer at Federated Wireless.