Broadband Access | C Spire Drives Effort to Bridge Digital Divide for Rural Communities

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A group of tech firms led by Mississippi-based C Spire are stepping up their efforts to bridge the “digital divide” with the launch of a new website, publication of a white paper on the rural broadband access problem and continuing research and development of several potentially disruptive service solutions.

The consortium, which also includes Airspan Networks, Microsoft, Nokia and Siklu, was formed earlier this year to test and deploy a variety of broadband technologies and new business models for use by regional fixed and wireless internet service providers, utilities and others to help improve broadband connectivity and adoption in rural areas.

Mississippi, with almost 28 percent of its residents lacking any broadband connectivity and less than 18 percent using broadband, is the primary focus of the group’s work as nearly half of its 3 million residents live in rural areas. The state ranks 46th nationwide in broadband access and 47th in urban population.

C Spire is taking the lead on this effort as part of its broader Tech Movement initiative, which is designed to help move the region forward through improvements in broadband access, workforce development and innovation. Improvements in rural broadband access are a key objective of the initiative.

The website, featuring a white paper on the problem as well as blog updates on consortium activities so far, also will be home to future updates on testing and deployment of various fixed wireless technology solutions, including TV white spaces, massive MIMO using Band 41 LTE spectrum and C Spire’s own 5G internet product.

“Our work is focused on developing technology solutions that can be easily, quickly and affordably implemented to scale to boost broadband adoption and affordability in several rural areas of Mississippi with few choices or no options,” said C Spire Chief Innovation Officer Craig Sparks. “No rural community should be left behind in today’s new digital economy.”

Sparks said the consortium is on track to achieve its goal, which is development of a new playbook on how to close the broadband adoption and affordability gap in rural communities across Mississippi and the rest of the U.S. The group plans to share its preliminary findings this fall with other industry stakeholders. A larger public conference is being planned in 2020.

Elements of the rural broadband blueprint include testing technologies, creating new business models, building new automated tools and education and training communities in digital skills. “Hyper-local collaboration and automated toolkits are going to be key factors in developing these easy-to-deploy network technologies,” Sparks added.

The broadband “digital divide” between cities and rural parts of the country is substantial. According to a 2018 Federal Communications Commission1 report, over 19.4 million rural Americans still lacked basic broadband at the end of 2017 with profound negative social and economic impacts on the nation’s rural communities.

Unfortunately, the problems are even more acute in states like Mississippi where rural residents have limited or no access to basic broadband. A 2017 Mississippi State University Center for Technology Outreach study2 found that the state’s rural counties lose millions of dollars a year in deferred economic benefits due to lack of availability and slow internet speeds, a further indication that findings from the consortium research and testing could have a profound impact on the state’s economy.


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