High-speed internet is critical for economic opportunity and stability. Not only does it open access to education but it also allows businesses to continue trading. Despite its importance, there are still many parts of the world, even in the United States, where basic internet connectivity—nevermind high-speed broadband—is unavailable.
The Digital Divide
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 97% of Americans have access to high-speed Internet in urban areas. In rural areas, however, this drops to 65%. In total, it’s thought that around 30 million Americans don’t have routine access to the internet.
Distribution of internet users and accessibility worldwide as of 2017. Image used courtesy of Our World in Data
Recently, the FCC has made significant efforts to expand broadband access through a range of initiatives that include the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which provides discounts on the cost of broadband services to eligible households. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a $9.2 billion project, intends to expand broadband in underserved rural areas across 49 states over the next 10 years.
A Global Issue
Internet access is not just an American issue, though; it’s a global one. Recent research on 6G by the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST) revealed that there were almost 4 billion people worldwide without access to the internet at the end of 2018, a third of whom reside in rural, low-income, and low-literacy areas in 20 countries.
With the growth of 5G, the IoT, and general widespread digital connectivity, however, there’s a growing need to bridge this digital divide and make access to fast, reliable internet a reality for the majority of people worldwide and the benefits it brings, such as access to better healthcare and education.
The best way to do this is by focusing on improving existing hardware infrastructure, say the KAUST researchers. KAUST point to solutions like further developing aerial access networks and improving the energy efficiency of the hardware that’s involved in delivering internet access.
Internet via Satellite?
A useful example of how hardware innovation could close the internet access gap is SpaceX’s low-latency broadband internet system spinoff project, Starlink.
Starlink is a satellite internet constellation that will consist of thousands of small satellites in low earth orbit. These satellites will work in combination with ground transceivers to provide fast internet access on a global scale. At the time of writing, Starlink has launched over 1,000 satellites—making up roughly one-quarter of all active satellites—and this number is increasing with each passing day.
More than 60 Starlink satellites orbiting earth before deployment. Image used courtesy of SpaceX
According to Elon Musk, the satellite internet service will “double” speeds to consumers in late 2021 when it will reach customers around “most” of the earth. By 2022, Musk expects that Starlink will have achieved complete global coverage with broadband speeds of up to 300 Mb/s.
How Does Starlink Work on the Ground?
Starlink has been designed for customers in “low to medium population density” areas, according to Musk. “Cellular will always have the advantage in dense urban areas,” he said in a Tweet on February 22nd.
Starlink requires no ground connection. Customers are sent a hardware kit that includes a Starlink receiver device, Wi-Fi router, power supply, cabling, and mounts. The only prerequisite is an install location that has a clear and unobstructed view of the sky.
Starlink Kit of network hardware. Image used courtesy of Starlink
Launched in 2016, Starlink is still in its infancy but is currently delivering an initial beta service.
If you work with wireless communication designs, how do you interpret your own role in closing the digital divide? Share your thoughts in the comments below.