Why Broadband is so Important for Rural America

Source: Neil Tackaberry, CC licensed    Flickr    image

Source: Neil Tackaberry, CC licensed Flickr image

5G's in the news: we're locked in a fierce competition with China for dominance; US carriers aren't as far behind us we think; the government needs to create a national network.  No doubt 5G is a big deal for national competitiveness and for the economy. 4G/LTE launched the AWS and App Store business model, giving us Instagram, Netflix, podcasts, Yelp, Uber, and so on. 5g will launch the internet of things, artificial intelligence, autonomy, and machine learning.

One of the lesser told stories is how 5G will exacerbate an already large bandwidth divide between urban and rural areas. And, to go one step further, it will open a gap between wealthy urban areas and the less wealthy.

The Problem—and the Solution
The issue is driven by how 5G networks are built. Everyone has seen those huge cell towers that provide much of the traditional cellular coverage. They are tall and connect to your phone through airwaves (AKA spectrum) that travel for relatively long distances, penetrating most walls. As we connect more devices to the internet, we crowd that spectrum more and more, meaning we have higher bandwidth needs, too.  

One way to solve this problem is to use spectrum--and more spectrum.

5G, and beyond, brings in spectrum called millimeter wave, the same band used by security at the airport. This spectrum is above 30 GHz, as compared to the 2.5-5 GHz bands your home wifi likely uses. Those spectrum bands don’t travel very far and don’t penetrate buildings, but they can be very effective over short ranges. The difficulty becomes, though, building out the devices you need to effectively use these higher spectrum bands.

A Challenge Ahead
It is a huge cost to densely pack urban areas with new equipment. And the business case for private carriers doing this in rural areas is unconvincing, leaving rural areas with far less bandwidth.

As a result, we're not going to have just a difference in scale. We’re going to have a difference in the kind [of bandwidth]. It won’t be that your Netflix takes longer to download--it’s that your Netflix just won’t work. The applications that you’ll be able to use in dense urban areas are going to be a different type than in  rural areas.

Many future business models will be predicated on having access to mobile applications, which will likely be inaccessible in rural areas. Granted, we have no idea what those applications and technologies will be, just as we didn’t know about Uber, Yelp, or Instagram. But the unfortunate consequence will be that rural areas will lag behind economically, most likely losing even more population as their economies become less competitive.

Government Impact
It's absolutely essential that the government bridges as much of this gap as possible, so rural areas can remain economically competitive. We’re well on our way, with the FCC’s newly announced Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, but there’s admittedly a lot of infrastructure work to be done.

Just as the government supported  the electrification of rural areas in the 1930s, we now need to rural areas get to the highest broadband speeds we possibly can. This is not a matter of getting Netflix to download a little faster. It’s about the future of rural america’s businesses, and the economy that supports these regions.

Interested in learning more about government R&D and emerging trends and technologies? Follow CEO Alan Pentz onTwitter or onLinkedIn.

The Driverless Car Story: How Government R&D Can Create New Industries

From the 2005 Grand Challenge at the California Speedway. Source: CC licensed    Flickr    image.

From the 2005 Grand Challenge at the California Speedway. Source: CC licensed Flickr image.

I’ve been doing some research on the history of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Driverless Car Challenge. Actually, it was officially called DARPA’s Grand Challenge for Autonomous Vehicles. The challenge took place in two stages: the first in March 2004 and the second in October 2005 (here’s an excellent oral history of the challenge from Wired).

In the first round, none of the 15 teams participating could complete the 142 mile desert course from Barstow, CA, to Primm, NV; thus, no one won the $1 million prize that DARPA was offering. From that failure, though, came astounding success. That $1 million has now spawned an industry that, in 2017, was worth $5 billion. It is estimated to grow to over $25 billion by 2024--and that’s mostly likely a low end estimate.

As part of this we will see huge disruptions to our transportation and logistics systems, with autonomous trucking, in addition to cars, drones, fire trucks(?), and a whole host of other autonomous vehicles.

This is the perfect example of the kind of market/industry creation story outlined in Mariana Mazzucato’s book The Entrepreneurial State. She sees government’s role as going beyond just correcting market failures (like the global financial crisis or monopolies) to creating industries.   The gist is that early investment and support from the government spurs additional private sector investment and commercialization.

In the case of DARPA’s Driverless Car Challenge, because government was willing to tolerate failure and bring non-traditional providers into the mix, it was able to create huge gains. I see at least four key reasons the program was a success.

  1. Accessing New Technologies and Non Traditional Participants: DoD had been working on autonomy through its traditional contractors and making little progress. The challenge allowed DoD to leapfrog traditional providers and bring new technologies and people unaffiliated with DoD to the table.

  2. Building the Human Capital: The team members that competed are a who's who of executives in autonomy today. Stanford’s team was led by Sebastian Thrun who started Google’s driverless project now a separate company called Waymo. The head of Ford’s driverless program competed. Other competitors have gone on to run autonomy research programs at university or founded companies to supply the key technologies and components.

  3. Grounding in a Requirements with a Deadline: The military had a goal to transform one third of it surface warfare fleet to autonomous vehicles by 2015 in an effort to reduce potential casualties. That requirement/mandate and timeline drove DARPA to get creative. Sure R&D can work on basic technologies that might not pay off for decades but a good portion of it has to be grounded in some fundamental need that has a big pay off if met.

  4. Leveraging the Government Brand: Winning a government sponsored contest, especially one from the agency that created the Internet is good PR. As you can see from the subsequent careers of those who participated, that PR gets attention. The promise of that stamp of approval attracts the best talent.

Interested in learning more about government R&D and emerging trends and technologies? Follow CEO Alan Pentz on Twitter or follow him on LinkedIn.