Universal Broadband Service and the Pandemic


This article was originally published in the IEEE Communications Standards Magazine.

“Universal Service” has a long history as a goal for telecommunications networks. The meaning is simple: everyone who wants to be connected to the network will have the opportunity to be. A century ago, when the phrase was first coined, this meant connection to the voice communication network. Today the goal has shifted, and universal service is interpreted to refer to a broadband connection to the Internet, affording access to voice, audio, video, and data. In fact, the Future Networks Initiative (FNI) of the IEEE has, as one of its goals, “Connecting the Unconnected”. So even in contemplating networks of the future, the goal of “universal service” remains in the foreground.

Universal broadband service is a global aspiration. Estimates vary, but it appears that, at most, about half of the world’s population can be said to have this service available to them, and that is with a very generous interpretation of what constitutes broadband. How to get to universal broadband remains a topic for debate, a debate that revolves around at least three axes of discussion. They are physical infrastructure, economics, and necessity.

The physical infrastructure of the access network that connects customers to the Internet backbone is the subject of much discussion when it comes to providing universal access. These discussions usually revolve around comparisons of terrestrial wireless, or fiber to the home/node/other, or low-earth orbit satellite constellations. Copper-based digital subscriber lines (DSL), hybrid fiber/coax (HFC), and data over powerline are often thrown into the mix. Community networks, relying on some combination of IEEE 802.11 for both backhaul and distribution, have been trialed. For reasons of geography, topography, regulatory tradition, weather, humidity, safety and construction codes, and specific application environments, the availability of each of these solutions has been limited. It appears that no one solution can fit every situation, so employing a blend of technologies may be the key to wider deployment.

The economics of universal service are clearly important. The discussions of this factor revolve around how much cost is incurred, both in capital and in operations, and by whom, and how much customers can afford or are willing to pay, and for what. The range of answers seem to depend on a number of factors. For instance, the willingness to pay of an individual in a developed economy can be quite different from the willingness to pay of an individual in a less developed economy. In developed regions, capital might be abundant and the cost of capital might be relatively low, but labor both for installation and operations is relatively expensive. In less developed regions, the opposite might be true. If the cost for building out and operating universal service exceeds the revenue that can be obtained from customers, that is, its net present value is negative, then some other means need to be found to pay for the network. Many different schemes have been proposed and some have been tried. These range from regulatory cross-subsidization to direct government grants to ancillary revenues from over-the-top service providers and advertisers. Again, it appears that no one solution can fit every situation, and much trial-and-error experimentation needs to be done.

When we speak of necessity, we are referring to what a given individual or group sees as the minimum type, quantity, and quality of service that is necessary. That depends on many factors, including cultural and social factors within a given society and what value that society places on a given application provided on a universal services network. However, if universal broadband is used to provide critical services to citizens, the argument can be made that those services should be of uniform quality and provided on an equal basis to everyone. And what might those services be? Education, health care, employment, government services, food security, and emergency communications might be a few of these. One point of view is that the provision of broadband services to schools and public libraries should be sufficient, and it is not necessary to provide those services to every residence. Some might take the position that a 2G wireless service that provides voice calling and text messaging is sufficient connectivity that should count as universal service. Others might say that some services are so critical to a modern society and economy that only significantly higher-speed Internet access will suffice. What speeds are necessary? For instance, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission currently defines broadband as 25Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream in the USA. In India, the Department of Telecommunications’ current definition of broadband is 2 Mbps downstream with a goal of 5 Mbps by 2022. As societies evolve, so will the definition of necessity, but the trend globally seems to tend toward more, not less.

Regardless of definition, it is clear that universal broadband service has not penetrated to all corners of either the developed or developing world. The visibility of this situation has increased because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With social distancing mandated, with in-person education limited, with medical facilities over-burdened, and with remote work required by companies and institutions, more voices have been raised about the criticality of having broadband connections in everyone’s residence. There is no doubt that the burden of insufficient connectivity has fallen disproportionally on those in rural areas and on those with fewer economic resources. As the necessity for universal broadband service becomes obvious because of the pandemic, solving the technological difficulties with providing physical connections in rural areas becomes a priority, and solving the economic difficulties with providing high quality services to those disadvantaged by location, unemployment, underemployment, or disability becomes a political and regulatory issue.

In these debates, IEEE can provide a critical resource. Technological developments can provide solutions to the physical access issues through research, development, and systems engineering. Fixing the economics is at least partially technical, as economies of scale in manufacturing kick in. Standards, of which IEEE has many in these areas, are a critical component in achieving this scale. This is not the first pandemic in human history, nor will it be the last, but perhaps it will be a turning point in providing the will for us to make a contemporary version of universal service a reality.

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