C Spire forms consortium to bridge digital gap in rural areas

C Spire, the nation’s sixth-largest wireless operator, is partnering with Airspan Networks, Microsoft, Nokia and Siklu to improve and extend the availability of fixed and wireless broadband in rural areas. The consortium today announced plans to develop new coordinated models with regional fixed and wireless broadband providers, utilities and other agencies to close the gap in affordability and access in rural communities.

The carrier says the effort is an expansion of the C Spire Tech Movement initiative, which calls for greater broadband access, workforce development and innovation in less populated areas. “Access to and adoption of broadband technology is critically important to economically move rural communities forward and ensure they are not left behind in today’s new digital economy,” C Spire President Stephen Bye said in a prepared statement.

C Spire notes that the digital divide between cities and rural areas remains a substantial burden for those living in less populated communities. An FCC report released at the end of 2018 concluded that more than 19.4 million U.S. residents still lacked basic broadband at the end of 2017.

RELATED: Editor’s Corner—Inside C Spire’s maverick strategy for fixed wireless

The problem is even more profound in Mississippi and Alabama, where nearly a third of rural resident have no access to basic broadband, according to C Spire. A 2017 study by Mississippi State University concluded that fixed broadband coverage and adoption in the the state’s rural communities would generate about $750 million in economic benefits per year and nearly $2 billion during the next 15 years.

“Our nation’s broadband adoption gap is a solvable problem that will not be limited in the next few years by the coming breadth of new technologies themselves, but rather how well we facilitate them to scale at the edge,” Craig Sparks, S Spire’s chief innovation officer, said in a prepared statement. C Spire and its partners are going to begin testing and sharing findings through a series of studies during the next 18 months in Mississippi and Alabama.

The rural broadband initiative is set to begin this week with technical discussions at a workshop in New Orleans. The consortium says it will provide more details about initial trial technologies and markets at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next month.