This story is part of, CNET's look at how the world will continue to evolve starting in 2022 and beyond.
If the world wasn't already dependent on the internet to keep us connected and to keep the global economy moving, two years of, , , and have made that reality painfully clear. Even so, , a grave limitation on participation in this new cyber status quo.
The Federal Communications Commission estimates that more than 14 million Americans lack access to baseline broadband speeds, while the internet service-tracker BroadbandNow pegs the number at closer to 42 million. Meanwhile, Pew Research Data suggests that communities of color are disproportionately underserved, with 80% of White Americans reporting access to broadband speeds compared to 71% of Black Americans and 65% of Hispanic Americans. Quality connections are particularly scarce in rural regions with low population density, and it was often teachers, parents and students who felt the brunt of it as schools hit pause on in-person learning and printed assignments . It's not just a lack of internet options -- in many areas, the true challenge is a lack of options people can actually afford.
With the broadband gap laid bare by the events of 2020, 2021 saw a renewed focus on meeting the challenge once and for all. Telecom titansand began leveraging their mobile infrastructure to provide 5G home internet service in , while Elon Musk's took to the skies with an ambitious goal of offering next-gen satellite internet connections across the globe. Meanwhile, the number of fiber internet providers , with , , , and all registering double-digit increases in their respective shares of customers with access to fiber-optic connections over the last five years. Perhaps the most important development is November's bipartisan passage of , which includes $65 billion in broadband funding.
"Out of crisis is opportunity," FCC acting chair Jessica Rosenworcel said. "With this crisis, we've ended the days where we talk about broadband as a 'nice-to-have.' Policymakers everywhere now understand it's a 'need-to-have' for everyone across this country."
All of that sets the table for a very busy year of broadband developments in 2022, but whether we see true progress or unrealized potential remains to be seen. For now, here's a look at what to expect and what to pay attention to in the months ahead.
Follow the money
If you want to know where broadband is headed in 2022, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act might provide a roadmap. Along with funding for roads, bridges, airports, upgrades to the nation's electrical grid and other infrastructure essentials, the bill sets aside $65 billion for broadband, the bulk of which comes in the form of a $42 billion commitment to bring fast internet speeds to regions where none are currently available. That effort will be led by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
"The Assistant Secretary shall establish a grant program, to be known as the "Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program'', under which the Assistant Secretary makes grants to eligible entities, in accordance with this section, to bridge the digital divide," reads section 60102 of the sprawling bill. The grant process will begin by May of 2022, and it will prioritize the delivery of broadband speeds to unserved and underserved regions across the US.
Other provisions in the package include $14.2 billion for the creation of a $30-per-month internet subsidy for low-income Americans, a permanent extension of digital redlining, a practice that allows internet providers to avoid low-income neighborhoods and communities of color that traditionally aren't as profitable to operate in.borne from the pandemic. Another $2.75 billion will go towards equity and inclusion efforts that could help put an end to
"The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will deliver long-needed improvements and infrastructure buildouts to every corner of the country," said NTIA Administrator Evelvn Remaley. "Our work is already underway, and we're eager to engage with stakeholders in every state, territory, tribe, and community to ensure these programs succeed."
A shift in services
As industry players, municipal utility collectives and other agencies prepare their grant applications, some providers are staying busy adapting their services or creating entirely new ones in order to better meet the burgeoning demand for broadband. Along withand the deployment of , that includes as a means of bringing people online.
This past March, the FCC auctioned off mid-band spectrum critical to high-speed 5G deployments. Verizon was the top bidder of the day, spendingto secure a significant swath of spectrum for itself and put it to use. That process is well underway, with the company planning to offer 5G connections with peak download speeds as high as 1 gigabit per second to 100 million people by March of 2022. Make that 175 million people by 2023, and 250 million people by 2024.
Along with offering faster mobile connections for phones and tablets on the go, that growing 5G network will continue to bring entire homes online via. Now , the service costs $70 per month, or $50 per month for existing Verizon subscribers, and offers average download speeds between 300 and 940Mbps, well exceeding the FCC's definition of true broadband speeds.
Verizon isn't alone;. Currently available to 30 million Americans for $50 per month, the service performed well . It'll be well worth keeping an eye on in 2022, as well.
And then there's Starlink
Few names in broadband garnered quite as many headlines in 2021 as, Elon Musk's bid to deliver to users across the globe. The service launched as a beta before kicking into high gear in 2021, with filling out Starlink's constellation with nearly 2,000 low-earth orbit satellites capable of delivering faster speeds than established competitors like and . Though it doesn't currently offer coverage that's available almost anywhere like those competitors do, Starlink plans to add thousands of additional satellites to that constellation in the coming months, each successful launch helping to expand the coverage map.
With a $500 deposit required to cover the equipment costs, Starlink certainly isn't inexpensive -- and stargazers next-gen Viasat-3 satellites in early 2022, with a promise of, "more data with higher data thresholds, faster speeds (100-plus Mbps service speeds), higher-quality streaming, enhanced service reliability and service anywhere in the US."about the growing presence of light pollution in the night sky -- but its progress will be worth monitoring in 2022 as it races to connect as many people as possible. Don't discount the competition, either -- Viasat plans to begin deploying
Hardware ahead of the curve
The past few years have seen some noteworthy advancements for home Wi-Fi tech, too. Most notable is the arrival of 802.11ax, or, a new version of Wi-Fi that's faster and more efficient than before, and well-entrenched at this point as the de facto standard for the latest Wi-Fi devices. The influx of new, multi-device mesh systems capable of offering better whole-home Wi-Fi coverage is worth paying attention to, as well.
There's also, a special designation for Wi-Fi 6 devices equipped to send signals in the ultra-wide 6GHz band, which is something Wi-Fi devices couldn't do until 2020, . It's , and the handful of early-adopter devices that support it are , but we'll be watching in 2022 to see whether or not the standard catches on as quickly as Wi-Fi 6 did.
Both Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E are designed to make the most out of gigabit and even multi-gig connections, but according to Ookla, the average fixed broadband speed in the US currently sits at around 130Mbps. That's a fraction of what and are capable of hitting, further underlining the need for faster internet speeds across the board.
2022 should deliver some progress on that front as the industry works to close the digital divide, but whether or not we see the sort of transformative progress that many are hoping for remains to be seen. Watch this space, and expect regular updates throughout the year.