The pandemic has finally receded. Normal life has resumed in most parts of the world. To many of us the age of being locked in our homes constantly worrying about getting sick and yes wearing horrendous face coverings seems like a lifetime away.
While thinking of the pandemic brings back traumatizing memories there are some aspects of that period that none of us should dare forget.
Our dear friend COVID-19, despite all its flaws, did manage to bring to light some glaring disparities permeating our society. From healthcare services to affordable housing to educational facilities the pandemic period showed us how fragmented our society really is.
One such disparity the pandemic helped bring to the fore is the digital divide.
With all of us stuck at home and almost all aspects of life shifting to online spaces access to high-speed broadband internet became almost as essential as being connected to the electricity grid. And as soon as we started looking at the internet as a basic human necessity we started realizing just how many of us lack it.
JUST HOW DEEP IS THE DIGITAL DIVIDE?
Data from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) shows that well over 14 million Americans lack access to high-speed broadband internet even in this day and age. While independent research organizations have put the figures much higher. A study conducted by the research organization Broadbandnow puts the number of Americans without access to high-speed internet at an astonishing 42 million.
Take a minute to let these statistics sink in. 42 million American citizens are stuck at home during the pandemic without any means to meaningfully interact with the outside world. As a result, these people had difficulty accessing online government services, entertainment, telemedicine (right when they needed it the most), online education, remote job opportunities, and much more.
WHY DO SO MANY AMERICANS LACK ACCESS TO HIGH-SPEED INTERNET?
The question then arises. Why do so many people in the United States of America, the birthplace of the tech revolution and home of the Silicon Valley giants, lack access to the digital world. One very obvious and straightforward answer is ‘size, terrain, and demographic.’
The U.S. is a huge country. And its population is not near evenly divided. And while there is no shortage of high-speed internet service providers (ISPs) competing for a bigger chunk of the urban internet pie many of them consider establishing expensive network infrastructure directed at rural and sparsely populated communities to be a poor investment.
And frankly who can blame them. Internet infrastructure like network antennas and optic fibers is not at all cheap. And if ISPs do not see a clear return on investment margins then we can’t force them to invest. After all, ISPs are businesses, not charities.
And even if terrestrial ISPs were to invest in expensive hardware to expand their services the per-month cost of these connections would prevent rural households from properly taking advantage. Quiet a conundrum, right? Luckily advances in internet technology over the last 2 decades have brought us closer to bridging the digital divide once and for all.
IS SATELLITE INTERNET THE ANSWER?
Satellite-based internet connections like the Hughesnet satellite internet offer broadband connectivity covering virtually every nook and corner of the United States (including Puerto Rico and Alaska). All you need is an antenna and a subscription and you are good to go.
Unlike dial-up, wired, fiber and other terrestrial internet technologies satellite ISPs do not need to set up distinct hardware dedicated to different areas. A single satellite (or a single constellation of satellites) provides coast-to-coast accessibility regardless of the terrain and population density of an area.
Currently, there are at least three major satellite ISPs providing services in the U.S. with Jeff Bezos’s Project Kuiper all set to make a late entry.
And it’s not just the U.S., American satellite ISPs are helping bridge the digital divide all across the world. Elon Musk’s Starlink providing high-speed uninterrupted internet access to Ukraine even during wartime is perhaps the best example of the potential of this technology.
And the best part? Satellite internet is not super expensive. Plans as low as $50 a month are available to rural consumers nationwide.
WHAT ARE THE DOWNSIDES OF SATELLITE INTERNET
Despite the countless advantages offered by satellite internet services, the technology is not without its downsides. For starters, satellite internet has extremely high latency which puts some limitations on the type of activities you can perform using it. But don’t worry the technology is improving daily and ISPs are working round the clock to address the latency dilemma.
Moreover, satellite internet speeds are markedly slower when compared to their terrestrial counterparts. But almost all providers offer nationwide plans with advertised download speeds of 25 Mbps.
For reference 25 Mbps is the FCC benchmark service providers have to achieve for their services to be labeled as broadband services. Several ISPs have also promised speeds as high as 100 Mbps in the near future, fingers crossed.
THE LAST WORD
With millions in the U.S. and almost half the people in the world still not connected to high-speed broadband the digital divide is one of the key social issues of modern times. While it is financially unviable for terrestrial ISPs to expand their infrastructure to every nook and corner of the world satellite ISPs are stepping in to fill the gap. Hopefully, if sat technology keeps advancing at its current pace, in a few years access to highspeed internet will no longer remain a luxury.