Will Self-Driving Vehicles Finally Bring Broadband to Rural America?

Autonomous vehicles will need ubiquitous connectivity, and there's a role for government and industry to finally make it happen.

A man sitting in the driver's seat of a driverless car on the highway.
A man sits in the driver's seat of a driverless car as it travels along a highway.
Anyone living or traveling in rural America knows the frustration of lost cellphone signals and poor Internet availability. Nearly 40 percent of the 60 million Americans living in rural communities still have no access to even the low-bar minimum broadband standard (25 megabits per second download; 3 Mbps upload) set by the Federal Communications Commission.

This means that while digitally connected cities and enterprise zones are reaping the returns of a virtuous cycle of investment and innovation, many rural areas are still languishing with copper wire and turn-of-the-century-level broadband capabilities. There are many reasons for this urban-rural broadband gap. The most obvious, of course, is that it is simply more profitable for broadband providers to concentrate their investment where they receive the highest returns -- which means high-density city and suburban settings.

But there is a new factor in the equation: the autonomous vehicle (AV) economy. Connected and self-driving vehicles promise a technological and economic transformation, and they may also finally bring high-speed broadband to rural communities. Why?

It's because of the critical role of connectivity in AV networks. Although the assumption is that self-driving cars -- with their onboard computers, radar, lidar, and ultrasonic and visual sensors -- will function just as well in the country as the city, it is quickly becoming apparent that without supporting high-speed broadband, this may not be the case for very long.

Vehicle-based sensing technologies are only one small part of the emerging AV network. In parallel with the development of the vehicles themselves, a myriad of supporting non-vehicle sensors and communications devices are being created that will allow the autonomous vehicle of the future to sense and respond to people, other vehicles and infrastructure. Those sensors will soon be appearing ubiquitously -- perched on signposts and telephone poles, embedded in curbs, bridges and pavement slabs, and even attached to bicycles and stitched into clothing.

Autonomous vehicles will connect to these devices through local "mesh" networks, with data transmitted through dedicated short-range communications technologies or (coming soon) 5G cellular networks. Importantly, as these non-vehicle sensors and transmitters continue to evolve, the autonomous vehicle itself will quickly cede much of its autonomy and intelligence, becoming less self-sufficient and increasingly dependent upon these local devices for safety and reliability.

Which brings us back to the issue of rural broadband, because right now, most small towns and rural areas simply don't have the high-speed broadband capacity to participate in these mesh networks.

It's in no one's interest to have autonomous vehicles -- or economic vitality -- starting and stopping at the city line. Small towns and rural communities need the economic continuity that AV technologies encourage in the development of "prosperity corridors" that link rural satellite towns to hub cities. AV manufacturers want their vehicles purchased universally. Ride-hailing technology networking companies like Uber or Lyft want to have their shared and self-driving fleets available for rural or satellite-town commuters. And telecom providers will be anxious to capture the revenues associated with ever-expanding mesh networks.

It's an interesting turn of events, because unless we want driverless technology in America to be an exclusively urban phenomenon, and to see the introduction of autonomous vehicles further exacerbate the city-rural digital divide, government and industry are going to need to get together and finally come up with a way to fund high-speed broadband for all Americans. The AV revolution may be just what rural America requires to finally get the level of connectivity it needs and deserves.

An author and strategic technology consultant who advises organizations and communities
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