The Broadband Lifeline in a Pandemic: Strategies for Provisioning Fast Internet Service to the Most Remote Rural Areas

Andrew Afflerbach, PhD, P.E.

I’ve been working from home now for two weeks. So have my wife and children, my CTC colleagues, and most of our clients. We can probably work (and distance learn) for months this way, but many Americans don’t have this option because the remote, rural areas in which they live have no broadband infrastructure at all.

Last week, I wrote about how to deploy Wi-Fi to multi-dwelling buildings and to ad hoc emergency sites like surge hospital locations, triage centers, and even parking lots where mass testing or treatment may occur.

Today, I want to consider one of the greatest broadband deficits we face as a nation. In the most remote, rural areas of the country, large numbers of residents suffer under slow DSL service—or no internet service at all.

Residents of these areas—which include tribal lands and other remote rural communities—may feel the effects of social distancing the most acutely. They cannot telework and their children can’t participate in online classes. They cannot do even the simple online functions that are so basic for most of us, like sending or receiving email. And for those who are alone, isolated, or self-quarantining, lack of internet means they are cut off from the world.

Our state, local, and tribal governments can help. So can private entities that want to do their part to support the least-connected among us.

A fast way to bring service to some of the most remote places in the country is to set up satellite connectivity to a location in the area, or on a vehicle, that can then provide connectivity to the area around the satellite receiver. Both approaches can be deployed very quickly; the equipment is readily available, and the satellite companies have approved installers in all areas of the country.

The advantage of a vehicle-based approach is that it can be deployed fast,  moved to deliver service where it is most needed, and located to maximize signal propagation.

Either way, a government or private entity can quickly get basic connectivity to families who have none – enhancing education, commerce, education, and public health. This strategy allows service to be delivered to remote areas in a matter of hours or days.

To do this, a satellite antenna would be linked to a Wi-Fi hotspot. The hotspot would almost certainly not be capable of broadband speeds because it would depend on satellite backhaul and would be further slowed by the distribution to many users. The hotspot might be able to provide 20 to 30 Mbps in total, and that capacity would be shared by all simultaneous users.

But even with a slow, 1 Mbps connection, a student can access schoolwork and a parent can work remotely—at least to a limited extent. Such a connection would be far superior to having no connection at all.

To make the installation as effective as possible, users might need some technical support to connect to the network. Appropriate policies could be put in place to limit use of games or other less-critical applications.

This is a tested method for delivering internet access to remote areas as quickly and effectively as possible; in fact, it’s used in some of the most remote areas of Latin America to get connectivity to otherwise unreachable villages and communities. Unfortunately, the current crisis requires ad hoc interim strategies like this in the United States as well. Hopefully, strong stimulus efforts and other mid- to long-term investments will bring real, robust broadband internet to those remote American communities.

Please don’t hesitate to let us know if we can help you think through this and related strategies.

Published: Tuesday, March 31, 2020 by CTC Technology & Energy