Over two decades into the new millennium, the digitalization of American life is no longer striking; it is ordinary. Every industry relies on computing, cloud storage, or other digital equipment to sell goods and services, while people’s individual lives often orbit around the internet, whether at home, at work, or on the move. Because of this new reliance on digital technology and the internet, expanding access to broadband has become critical.
The term broadband commonly refers to high-speed Internet access that is always on and faster than the traditional dial-up access, while the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband internet as a minimum of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed. In terms of economic outcomes, broadband delivers benefits to both individuals, communities, and even organizations.
For most Americans, broadband is commonplace in professional, personal, and social interactions, but overall, independent research by groups such as Broadband Now suggests 42 million Americans are without broadband access.
“Broadband is so influential on society that we would now call it essential infrastructure, as its applications are so far-reaching that these physical networks, directly and indirectly, affect a wide range of conditions that impact health and life outcomes for nearly everyone,” said David Walsh, Internet pioneer, entrepreneur, and investor. “However, despite its importance, broadband is still far from ubiquitous, with millions of households not having access to high-speed wireline or wireless services, and the reason for this more often than not comes down to a lack of income.”
Most regions of the U.S. receive broadband from private sector internet service providers (ISPs) like Verizon and Xfinity. In sparsely populated areas, however, the returns to internet investment from user fees aren’t enough to cover private providers’ costs of building out their networks, an issue commonly known as the “last mile” problem.
On top of this, when mobile operators use internet metering, a service model in which bandwidth use is tracked, and high traffic is charged accordingly. Practices like this also hinder the ability of low-income families in both urban and rural regions to access broadband.
However, the FCC has recently decided to release two forms of spectrum that were only used for specific reasons to the open market. On April 20th, 2020, the FCC announced an auction to re-allocate the Educational Broadband Service (EBS) spectrum along and issue new licenses, as well as changing the requirements for licensees and dropping rules requiring educational use for this spectrum. And earlier this year, the FCC announced a similar auction, but for the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum.
The EBS was only used for educational purposes, but in the mid-2000s, the FCC opened it up to broadband services. Despite that, the band had remained largely underutilized until the rule change, in which 72 EBS licenses were sold within a year. As for CBRS, it’s designated for sharing among three tiers of users: incumbent users, priority licensees, and generally authorized. The incumbents are those who have historically held exclusive rights to the band, namely satellite ground stations, and the U.S. Navy.
“Broadband is an increasingly important tool for everything from education to employment opportunities, and holding these auctions is a good start to expanding broadband access,” said Walsh. “However, federal policymakers can also use this opportunity to seek to remove regulatory barriers that could deter deployment and ensure programs that address barriers to adoption are properly accessible to both qualifying individuals and those wishing to provide service.”
With the expansion of broadband, imminent thanks to these auctions, industries across a myriad of sectors are now looking into the possibilities that become available when leveraging high-speed broadband. One industry that can benefit greatly from the adoption of broadband internet is the manufacturing industry.
When it comes to broadband in manufacturing, or industry 4.0, companies are fostering digital technologies to enhance, automate, and modernize the whole process. This is mainly done through the use of the Internet of Things (IoT) and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technology.
These are networks of connected devices that communicate data to a central system in order to make sense of it all. These networks consist of connected edge devices, terminals, and machines in an enterprise. The data captured through this network provides an understanding of what is successful and what is not in terms of operations and processes.
Through the use of these devices, manufacturers can take advantage of what’s called the “connected factory,” eliminating nearly all blind spots in the process.
“IoT and IIoT enabled machines and endpoints are capable of communicating operational information to personnel both inside and peripheral to your organization. That includes machine operators, managers, field service personnel, and even partners like suppliers, subcontractors, and OEMs,” said Walsh. “This connectivity delivers mission-critical data and information to operation managers and factory leadership on-site and out-of-office. The power to control operations and manage factory activity on a remote level increases opportunities for process optimization and automation. U.S. manufacturers can now leverage faster broadband supporting these beneficial programs even in the most rural areas. We can accelerate this with common sense financial support from the government, along with private/public partnerships. We can help American manufacturers become more competitive – creating jobs and building local economies.”
The connected factory improves nearly every aspect of a factory, from keeping a safe and secure environment to predictive forecasting to even energy and operational efficiency. Shop floors would routinely include sensors, machine monitoring, and other digital tools and platforms, allowing manufacturers to unlock new levels of efficiency and transparency in their operations.
The need for broadband access in manufacturing isn’t going to die down anytime, as the digital transformation in the manufacturing market was valued at USD 263.93 billion in 2020 and is expected to reach USD 767.82 billion by 2026 and work at a CAGR of 19.48% over the forecast period 2021-2026.
Overall, access to high-speed broadband is just as important for the manufacturing industry as it is for other organizations and individuals alike. And the recently passed infrastructure bill has $65 billion penciled off for broadband, the largest single investment in broadband expansion in decades. The bill puts nearly equal focus on addressing affordability, which will likely bring internet to significantly more Americans than could building out networks to rural areas alone, but changes still need to be made to ensure broadband access for everyone from individuals to industries.
“Barriers to the adoption of new technologies including lack of access to high-speed broadband services across the U.S. have created significant challenges in individual and community outcomes,” Walsh said. “The faster we can remove these barriers, the faster individuals and industries like manufacturing can reap the benefits of high-speed broadband and the applications networking supports.”