Dec 11, 2020 Telecom

Building the Future of Rural Networks - Part 1: Limitations and Opportunities

By Nermin Mohamed, Head of Telecommunications Solutions at Wind River

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One’s zip code is a primary indicator of a person’s success and prosperity, but does it have to be? If you don’t believe me, spend a few minutes with the Opportunity Atlas and see for yourself. Go on, I’ll wait. Things look pretty good if you are born into steady income in an area of opportunity, but what about everybody else? It’s not hard to see why some think the “American Dream” feels a bit rigged. Do you feel good about that? I don’t.

Success in today’s world and the future depends greatly on the ability to thrive in the digital economy. And because the digital economy isn’t bound by geography, it should provide more opportunity for more people regardless where they live. Yet, according to this year’s deployment report from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, 6% (21.3 million) of Americans do not have access to high-speed internet. That’s a lot of people on the wrong side of a digital divide. The good news is that this is not as complex as a “solve world hunger” type of problem. We can fix this.

Those of us involved in providing communications, which includes vendors like Wind River, communications service providers, and our local and federal governments have the opportunity--- I will say responsibility -- to actually make it better. By focusing on one component contributing to inequality and acting with a specific intent, we can take meaningful steps to bridge the digital divide. And as a rising tide lifts all boats, by positively impacting and uplifting the disadvantaged, we uplift everyone.

In this 3-part blog series, we’ll look at today’s reality of digital access for rural Americans and the near-term future of the intelligent rural network.

Current rural access

In “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck famously wrote about the migration from the mid-western, rural “dust bowl” to areas like California where there was water, fertile land, and opportunity. What we are starting to see in America is a digital dust bowl with the larger urban areas possessing more opportunity for technological advancements and greater accessibility of the internet. Meanwhile, rural areas might have internet but, in many cases, it isn’t high speed. And 5G? Forget about it. And why not? The honest truth is that the economics just aren’t there. Consider what’s more profitable: installing cell towers in a 10-mile radius to connect 1,000,000 revenue-generating customers or installing towers to cover a 100-mile radius to connect 1,000 people?

Looking at it through an economics lens, the business rationale is apparent. However,  urban and rural Americans should have the same level of opportunity. How do we consider internet access in terms of social equality and the health of the nation as a whole?

COVID-19 deepens the gap

In a similar vein, consider the issue of access to health care. We’ve seen a massive shift to digital healthcare as a result of COVID-19. This should actually be a good thing for rural communities that may have limited healthcare options in the area. Tele-medicine should provide access to a greater selection of doctors and nurses. But without high speed internet and accessibility, patients lose out on so much of a doctor visit. It’s one thing for a patient to meet with a doctor via voice only and try to describe what’s going on. However, if the patient has high resolution 2-way video and the doctor can see the patient, it provides a much better chance of comprehensive assessment and diagnosis. As we move towards adopting more preventative health care practices, 2-way video provides a means for professionals to assist their patients in educating them on how to avoid illness by staying healthy.

On the topic of education, rural and urban children who do not have access to high speed internet are getting left behind. There was always a gap between students who have resources, including internet, and those who don’t. With actions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 forcing students to learn online, those gaps are widening faster. This was already an existing problem, which COVID-19 has exasperated and made more obvious. As we move beyond COVID-19, it’s reasonable to expect that teaching will continue to evolve to incorporate more digital learning, which ultimately requires better connectivity for more students.

In the age of information, digital access is an imperative to ensure every citizen has an equal opportunity to thrive. If we fail to act now, we are failing a future generation. In part 2 of our blog series, we’ll explore how the industry is moving to smart rural networks that enable connectivity for everyone.

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