Diverse Infrastructure Solutions Are the Key to Closing the Digital Divide

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The digital divide has remained stubbornly persistent for decades, even as the internet has become steadily more inextricable from daily life, business, health care, and education. Research group BroadbandNow estimates that 42 million Americans have no broadband access, while a depressing 120 million people in the US are without any connection fast enough to even call the internet, according to Microsoft. These disparities are particularly severe among Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, and rural communities. In denser towns, it's more economical to deliver broadband over fiber-optic cables, the industry's gold standard for speed and reliability. However, it can still be way too expensive in rural areas. Local broadband providers are turning to Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), a wireless spectrum historically used by US Navy aircraft carriers for radar transmissions. In recent years the Federal Communications Commission has opened a slice of this spectrum for commercial use, enabling providers to beam broadband as far as 6 miles over signal stations—installed atop cell towers, barns, even prisons—that are sort of like massive Wi-Fi routers. CBRS is fast enough to stream movies and costs a fraction of what fiber costs to build. Yet the messy reality of the digital divide is that a mix of physical and wireless networks would be cheaper and more practical than some one-size-fits-all solution. The US is full of diverse communities and regions, and each requires its own custom infrastructure plan to make broadband available and affordable.

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