Digital Divide

Here are 10 big broadband moments from the last 12 months

The broadband industry is having a moment that often gets compared to the rural electrification of the 1930s here in the US.

The push to close the "digital divide" following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic may have finally delivered enough money and institutional buy-in to accomplish something more than telco corporate responsibility box-ticking.

In the US, millions of people still lack broadband access. Indeed, the actual number should become clearer – and bigger – when new federal broadband data is released later this year (more on that later).

With 5G now a strategic weapon and something of a wildcard in the usual turf war between a few government-sanctioned monopolies, all eyes are on the broadband industry as it paves the way for a universally connected future.

Here are ten of the biggest moments from the last year that have helped define the state of broadband today and where the industry is headed.

1. Cable sees broadband subscriber slowdown

Following their early-pandemic peaks, cable operators like Comcast and Charter saw wireline broadband subscriber numbers start to fall this past year. This may have implications for how cable factors into the broadband game going forward. As Jeff Baumgartner recently reported, slowing broadband growth for cable providers has led to a stock sell-off and concerns that they could go negative, with competition from fiber builds and fixed wireless access (FWA) taking most of the blame. LightShed Partners went so far as to say that "the cable broadband growth era is over."

Catch up on some other cable and telco subscriber slowdown highlights here:

2. Fiber explodes

Fiber deployment is surging worldwide. According to Omdia's Fiber Development Index for 2021, Singapore leads the globe in fiber growth, followed by South Korea, the UAE, Qatar and China. And according to a 2021 North American provider study conducted by RVA on behalf of the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA), fiber broadband now passes over 60.5 million homes in the US, growing 12% in 2021. To date, 43% of US households can access fiber. 6.9 million homes gained fiber in 2021, meaning last year represented the second biggest growth year for FTTH, coming just behind 2020, which clocked in at 7.2 million new homes passed.

2021 represented the second biggest growth year for FTTH.
  (Source: the lightwriter/Alamy Stock Photo)
2021 represented the second biggest growth year for FTTH.
(Source: the lightwriter/Alamy Stock Photo)

3. Frontier goes all in on fiber

Frontier Communications, which emerged from bankruptcy last April, announced an ambitious strategy to cover 10 million premises with fiber by 2025. Currently, Frontier's fiber footprint covers roughly 4 million premises. The company said that it would add another 1 million in 2022. Frontier ended 2021 with 1.33 million fiber broadband customers, up 8% year-over-year.

4. Generational broadband investments

This year saw the disbursement of dollars from the FCC's $9.2 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), with some of that showing up in earnings. Charter booked about $19 million in RDOF-related revenues in Q1 2022, with an expectation that roughly $9 million per month will come in over the next ten years, according to Jessica Fischer, Charter's chief financial officer. But the biggest boost to broadband that we've seen yet in the US, considered to be a once-in-a-generation funding surge, came from the Biden administration's Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) which set aside $65 billion for broadband. The largest chunk of that is coming through the Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) grant program, managed by the NTIA, which opened its notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) on May 13, allowing states to express their intention to participate in the program.

5. US broadband gets mapped (almost)

It's been a big year for the subject of broadband mapping in the US, where the data used to quantify the digital divide is universally understood to be bad and inhibitive of efforts to get broadband infrastructure where it's needed. Congress sought to tackle that in 2020 through the Broadband DATA Act, which required the FCC to develop data and maps that reflect the true state of broadband access in the United States. The importance of that map was further cemented by the IIJA, which mandates that all state plans requesting broadband money base their applications on federal data. In March, it was announced that CostQuest would deliver the broadband serviceable location fabric. The FCC is currently collecting data from service providers and, according to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, the new maps will be released this fall. In the meantime, various states have engaged in their own mapping efforts with vendors like LightBox, in part to have their own datasets for the federal challenge process following the FCC's data release.

6. Starlink keeps growing – and polarizing

SpaceX's Starlink, run by impending Twitter Overlord Elon Musk, blasted into 2022 with fretting reports from analysts about its deployment plan, and a fight with competitor Viasat over money from the FCC's RDOF. The company went on to pick up some better PR when it donated satellite terminals to Ukraine following the start of Russia's war on the country. However, it was stressed by security experts that those terminals carried additional risks (further, "donated" may have been code for federally subsidized). On the business front, the company released a $500 "premium" monthly tier with faster speeds, and it surpassed 250K customers. But Starlink's ambitions suffered a blow last month when France stripped its license to operate in two of the country's frequency bands, reversing a decision made by French telecoms regulator Arcep in 2021.

Starlink released a $500 'premium' monthly tier with faster speeds, and it surpassed 250K customers.
  (Source:  Official Space X Photos on Flickr CC2.0)
Starlink released a $500 "premium" monthly tier with faster speeds, and it surpassed 250K customers.
(Source: Official Space X Photos on Flickr CC2.0)

7. Starry goes public

Fixed wireless startup Starry went public in March with a service expansion plan to cover more than 40 million households, including launches in markets such as Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, Seattle, Detroit and Philadelphia. The company said it aimed for a subscriber base of 1.4 million and revenues of $1.1 billion by 2026. But Starry's Q1 2022 results released last week suggest a slower-growth future than projected. While Starry gained 8,000 fixed wireless customers during the first quarter of 2022, it backtracked on its full-year guidance, saying it now expects its EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) losses to total $125 million in 2022 – significantly more than the $74 million it forecast late last year. It also cut back on plans to launch multiple new markets during the rest of 2022 and will instead launch services in one as-yet-unnamed market. On its first earnings call as a public company, Starry execs acknowledged that the company will need to raise more money to reach its broader network buildout goals.

8. Growth of gigabit offerings

Gigabit options took off this year with telcos and some cable operators, including AT&T, Ziply Fiber, Verizon, Frontier and Cox. Comcast upgraded its fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) "Gigabit Pro" service to 3Gbit/s symmetrical speeds starting at $300. Verizon introduced a 2-Gig symmetrical service in New York for $119.99 per month. And Cox recently launched 2-Gig symmetrical service on parts of its network starting at $110 per month for customers who also use its premium whole-home Wi-Fi service. The gigs are rolling across the world: Analyst firm Omdia wrote in a report at the end of last year that global gigabit subscriptions would more than double from 24 million at the end of 2020 to 50 million in 2022.

9. DOCSIS 4.0 on trial

Several pieces of the DOCSIS 4.0 ecosystem are still in development or only available as prototypes, and skeptics abound about the technology's future. But DOCSIS demos from Charter Communications and Comcast at the CableLabs show last month clarified that progress is indeed being made toward DOCSIS 4.0 commercialization. At the CableLabs "10G Showcase," the operators showed off technologies and systems for both operational modes for DOCSIS 4.0: Extended Spectrum DOCSIS (ESD) and Full Duplex DOCSIS (FDX). Charter's demo centered on the ESD option (also known as Frequency Division Duplexing, or FDD), whereby the spectrum of the plant is extended (up to 1.8GHz) while keeping upstream and downstream traffic separate. Comcast's demos focused on FDX, a version that keeps the spectrum ceiling at 1.2GHz, but uses an FDX band that allows upstream and downstream traffic to dynamically flow in the same block of spectrum. Still, said CableLabs CEO Phil McKinley, fiber is now a larger research area for CableLabs than DOCSIS.

10. Digital divide issues persist

With the COVID-19 pandemic thrusting the digital divide into focus, Light Reading launched a new podcast series last year called "The Divide," where we explore why and where people are still struggling to deploy, access and adopt broadband. Our conversations have covered everything from municipal open access networks in the rural US, to fights between telco incumbents and state legislators, to the influence of industry associations on broadband policy, to the difference advanced field technologies make in broadband deployment – and well beyond. Catch up on some episodes below (and on the Light Reading Podcast) for more on how and where companies and communities are making progress on closing the digital divide:

— The Staff, Broadband World News

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