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To Close the Digital Divide, the FCC Must Redefine Broadband Speeds

Dating from 2015, the agency’s definition of broadband is much too slow

2 min read
Image of school supplies and a broadband signal.
Illustration: Dan Page

The coronavirus pandemic has brought the broadband gap in the United States into stark relief—5.6 percent of the population has no access to broadband infrastructure. But for an even larger percentage of the population, the issue is that they can't afford access, or they get by on mobile phone plans. Recent estimates, for example, suggest that 15 million to 16 million students—roughly 30 percent of the grade-school population in the United States—lack broadband access for some reason.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has punted on broadband access for at least a decade. With the recent change in the regulatory regime, it's time for the country that created the ARPANET to fix its broadband access problem. While the lack of access is driven largely by broadband's high cost, the reason that cost is driving the broadband gap is because the FCC's current definition of broadband is stuck in the early 2000s.

The FCC defines broadband as a download speed of 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of 3 Mb/s. The agency set this definition in 2015, when it was already immediately outdated. At that time, I was already stressing a 50 Mb/s connection just from a couple of Netflix streams and working from home. Before 2015, the defined broadband speeds in the United States were an anemic 4 Mb/s down and 1 Mb/s up, set in 2010.

If the FCC wants to address the broadband gap rather than placate the telephone companies it's supposed to regulate, it should again redefine broadband. The FCC could easily establish broadband as 100 Mb/s down and at least 10 Mb/s up. This isn't a radical proposal: As of 2018, 90.5 percent of the U.S. population already had access to 100 Mb/s speeds, but only 45.7 percent were tapping into it, according to the FCC's 2020 Broadband Deployment Report.

Redefining broadband will force upgrades where necessary and also reveal locations where competition is low and prices are high. As things stand, most people in need of speeds above 100 Mb/s have only one option: cable providers. Fiber is an alternative, but most U.S. fiber deployments are in wealthy suburban and dense urban areas, leaving rural students and those living on reservations behind. A lack of competition leaves cable providers able to impose data caps and raise fees.

What seems like a lack of demand is more likely a rejection of a high-cost service, even as more people require 100 Mb/s for their broadband needs. In the United States, 100 Mb/s plans cost $81.19 per month on average, according to data from consumer interest group New America. The group gathered broadband prices across 760 plans in 28 cities around the world, including 14 cities in the United States. When compared with other countries, prices in the United States are much higher. In Europe, the average cost of a 100/10 Mb/s plan is $48.48, and in Asia, a similar plan would cost $69.76.

Closing the broadband gap will still require more infrastructure and fewer monopolies, but redefining broadband is a start. With a new understanding of what constitutes reasonable broadband, the United States can proactively create new policies that promote the rollout of plans that will meet the needs of today and the future.

This article appears in the February 2021 print issue as “Redefining Broadband."

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Metamaterials Could Solve One of 6G’s Big Problems

There’s plenty of bandwidth available if we use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces

12 min read
An illustration depicting cellphone users at street level in a city, with wireless signals reaching them via reflecting surfaces.

Ground level in a typical urban canyon, shielded by tall buildings, will be inaccessible to some 6G frequencies. Deft placement of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces [yellow] will enable the signals to pervade these areas.

Chris Philpot

For all the tumultuous revolution in wireless technology over the past several decades, there have been a couple of constants. One is the overcrowding of radio bands, and the other is the move to escape that congestion by exploiting higher and higher frequencies. And today, as engineers roll out 5G and plan for 6G wireless, they find themselves at a crossroads: After years of designing superefficient transmitters and receivers, and of compensating for the signal losses at the end points of a radio channel, they’re beginning to realize that they are approaching the practical limits of transmitter and receiver efficiency. From now on, to get high performance as we go to higher frequencies, we will need to engineer the wireless channel itself. But how can we possibly engineer and control a wireless environment, which is determined by a host of factors, many of them random and therefore unpredictable?

Perhaps the most promising solution, right now, is to use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces. These are planar structures typically ranging in size from about 100 square centimeters to about 5 square meters or more, depending on the frequency and other factors. These surfaces use advanced substances called metamaterials to reflect and refract electromagnetic waves. Thin two-dimensional metamaterials, known as metasurfaces, can be designed to sense the local electromagnetic environment and tune the wave’s key properties, such as its amplitude, phase, and polarization, as the wave is reflected or refracted by the surface. So as the waves fall on such a surface, it can alter the incident waves’ direction so as to strengthen the channel. In fact, these metasurfaces can be programmed to make these changes dynamically, reconfiguring the signal in real time in response to changes in the wireless channel. Think of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces as the next evolution of the repeater concept.

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