Living in the Last Mile: How to Improve Rural Internet Access

Internet access, and in my case, broadband, is often taken for granted. When you don't have the same access, you quickly realize how valuable it is.

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Hello, my name is Ben and I live in the last mile.

I am part of the 30% of Americans who don’t have real broadband access at home. And no, this is not by choice…entirely.

Five years ago, my wife and I decided to move slightly south of San Jose (where my office is) and acquire some land in a rural area of Silicon Valley. We were attracted to the idea of raising our family in a more country-like setting with a slower pace of life. This has been one of the better decisions we have made and we would make it again in a heartbeat. We grow our own food, and raise chickens, goats, and other common rural inhabitants. But we have no access to decent broadband.

By decent broadband, I mean something that is even remotely comparable to the city and suburban areas. At my office in San Jose, I get 50-60 megabits per second (Mbps) and pay less than $100 a month for it. At my house, I get 3-5 Mbps and I pay well over $100 a month for it. This is not true broadband, but it’s the best I can get.

My access comes from a line-of-sight ISDN provider who services many of my neighbors and others in my town. Satellite is an alternative; it has too many latency issues to be usable for me, although many in our area do have satellite broadband.

Now for web browsing, email, and simple tasks this is not an issue. In fact, 3-5 Mbps can even work for online gaming, but it certainly pushes the limits: Countless times, I have experienced glitches paying Call of Duty online with friends.

The biggest area this impacts is the downloading or streaming of video. I would love to use Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime video, and rent or buy movies from iTunes, but the wait-to-stream videos or the downgrade in the quality of the video is just too painful. When you live in the last mile, instant on-demand streaming video is neither instant nor on-demand.

So How Do We Fix This?

Obviously, the answer is technology. And in this case, I feel the best solution to this problem is wireless technology. This answer also provides perhaps the greatest challenge. LTE adoption rates in the U.S. are still in their early stages. According to Qualcomm, network technologies have an average life span of about 18 years. Approximately 10 years into the latest network adoption cycle, new higher-speed network technologies begin being deployed. If this holds true going forward, then we are still 6-7 years away from the next major evolution of wireless broadband coming to market. And we are even further from the next evolution being widely adopted.

Even if this timeline holds true, new network technology deployment strategies will be required from wireless Internet service providers. Today, network operators deploy a single cell tower to service an entire area. This will continue to work in rural areas to a degree, but will be more difficult in more populated areas. Current network deployment is called a large cell network. This is where one cell tower is designed to cover a large area. In the future, it may actually be in small cells. This deployment would use many smaller cells to cover the same areas. It would allow for more consistent data speeds and quality of service, and it would serve larger populations more efficiently.

If wireless technology can be deployed and offered at price points affordable for the mass market, then it can become a legitimate solution. Even if this is not deployed in many areas with a traditional router or modem but with mobile devices — like tablets or smartphones that are used as hotspots — it will still require a significant amount of network infrastructure that does not exist today.

Not Just America

Advancements in wireless technology as a solution for pervasive broadband is important for America, but it’s vital for many other countries where running miles of fiber is simply not an option. It is imperative to bring broadband to as many people on the planet as possible since it opens up many doors to life, education and broader societal development.

Without question, the highest priority is bringing food, clean water, and other infrastructure to these regions, but from a developmental standpoint for the next 25 to 50 years, I think it’s reasonable to include Internet access on the list as well. And in most — if not all — of these regions, wireless technology will be the only viable solution.

Internet access, and in my case, broadband, is often taken for granted. When you don’t have the same access, you quickly realize how valuable it is. I live in the last mile and it’s a challenge for me, given my line of work. But the important thing to remember is that there are still billions of people who have no access at all.

Bajarin is a principal at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the Big Picture opinion column that appears here every week on TIME Tech.