Ken Peterman is chair, president, and CEO of Comtech, a global technology company providing terrestrial and wireless network solutions, next-generation 9-1-1 emergency services, satellite and space communications technologies, and cloud-native capabilities to commercial and government customers worldwide.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought to the forefront the importance of access to secure and ubiquitous connectivity for businesses, governments, communities, and individuals around the world, but not all citizens have the same opportunities for connection. While access to connectivity continues to expand, some areas, even those within the United States, are still woefully underserved by the existing broadband technologies currently deployed.
Today, satellite and terrestrial communications infrastructures must evolve to democratize access to connectivity worldwide. As a fundamental need in today’s technology-driven society, hybrid network infrastructures can democratize access to connectivity for American citizens and the nearly three billion people in the world who remain unconnected.
The United States has struggled to bridge our digital divide at home over the past 20 years, even though the U.S. Government and private sector have invested billions in broadband deployments. Unfortunately, more than 24 million U.S. households still don’t have access to the internet. And embarrassingly, four percent of offline households in 2021 cited a lack of Internet availability in the area. Millions of other U.S. residents in big cities and rural towns have access but can’t afford it. Nearly one-third of Americans who don’t have broadband claim the reason is cost.
The Biden administration launched a $45 billion Internet for All initiative last spring to deliver affordable high-speed broadband to every corner and everyone across the country, emphasizing unserved and underserved communities. On Feb. 27, Vice President Kamala Harris announced progress in lowering Internet costs for over 16 million U.S. households. While the Biden administration is making significant progress, more must be done to close the digital divide in the United States.
Kentucky and Alaska are two states leveraging federal funds to respond to broadband affordability and accessibility challenges. These two states recently unveiled investments to connect mostly rural areas with no internet access or chronically slow service at best.
Officials predict Kentucky’s rural fiber-optic network buildout will deliver “dramatic improvements” in broadband connectivity for about 34,000 families, students, and businesses. But these communities will still have to wait up to five years for the service to reach their homes, stores, and schools. This is an issue that cannot wait, given our reliance on connectivity for everything from schoolwork to emergency services. The same story is playing out in other states attempting to bridge the digital divide with traditional network deployments.
New hybrid connectivity solutions deliver affordable, ultra-high-speed connectivity services to underserved and unconnected communities and can do so on a much faster timeline than current efforts. Hybrid connectivity infrastructures blend the strengths of space, satellite, terrestrial and cellular technologies to create a unified network that can connect the unconnected and deliver access to the latest internet-based technologies in the hardest-to-reach places in the world—including underserved locales in the United States. We are doing our citizens a grave disservice if we do not immediately make this new technology available to them. We have the tools to bridge this digital divide and connect the unconnected; there is no reasonable explanation for not utilizing the hybrid technology available to connect our citizens.
While the sweet spot for cost-effective fiber and cellular 5G service delivery is often limited to urban regions, satellite, with its nearly unlimited reach, can affordably push 5G into remote, isolated communities where fiber can’t go, at least not without major and often prohibitive expense.
Democratized access to communications technologies improves critical services, such as healthcare, telemedicine, economics, business and education, and ensures everyone has a fair chance. Equal access to connectivity can no longer be overlooked anywhere in the world; it is a critical issue that needs to be addressed in societies that are increasingly reliant on connectivity for some of the most basic needs imaginable, especially within our own borders.
While the Biden administration looks to expand access to broadband services in the United States, I urge lawmakers to consider hybrid connectivity infrastructures as a key solution to addressing the connectivity gap in our communities. Access to communications technologies is just as critical today as roads and bridges, and hybrid connectivity infrastructures can solve this challenge in relatively no time and at a reasonable cost.
Hybrid infrastructures can deliver the internet accessibility and affordability that has eluded some of our communities for so long. By backing programs leveraging existing and emerging space, satellite, terrestrial, and wireless networks, our lawmakers can play a key role in closing the digital divide for good.