Stretching Broadband Internet Through Rural America

5 min read
Aug 9, 2021 12:14:11 PM

For over twenty years, the building and development of Internet infrastructure has favored urban areas with heavy populations, leaving the rural parts of the country in an internet void. With little to no economic incentive to bring broadband internet to these communities, the result is too many rural Americans are living in the digital dark.

Enter the pandemic lockdown, and some light began to shine on this digital darkness, illustrating the challenges and vulnerabilities facing rural areas without broadband internet connectivity. With so many Americans working from home, attending school through virtual software programs, dependent on telehealth and required to register for their vaccines and medical tests online, many of them resorted to logging onto remote classrooms from the parking lots of restaurants, hotels, barren elementary schools and libraries — or wherever connection could be found.

Call-out Rural US Internet Fact

The need for broadband connectivity is brought even more into focus when you consider that even prior to the pandemic, some rural economies were seeing a boom with people leaving urban settings and heavily populated cities for the slower pace of life. A host of companies in these rural areas have said they will allow employees to continue to telecommute all or part of the time. This trend is predicted to accelerate even after the pandemic, increasing the need to resolve the digital vacuum.

In some rural areas, local leaders are executing plans to attract new businesses and a younger generation of workers — but those plans won’t work without better internet service. In addition, the necessity of working from home during the pandemic may provide additional economic opportunities — again, if there is infrastructure in place to sustain it.

So, basically, Houston, we have a problem.

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Given the long-term economic benefits of broadband accessibility, why has broadband service been so difficult to obtain? There are several variables to consider, but chief among them is low returns on investment for providers, high upfront capital costs and few potential customers all making it less profitable to provide broadband service to many rural areas. And this isn’t the first time American rural areas have been left in the dust.

In the 1930’s, rural areas faced a similar problem regarding access to electricity. Only one in 10 households had electricity, compared with nine in 10 urban residents. Enter the Rural Electrification Administration, created in May, 1936, which provided federal loans for the installation of electrical distribution systems. The funding was channeled through cooperative electric power companies, allowing cooperatives and other entities to string wires to rural areas. By 1950, 90 percent of American farms and homes had electricity.

Rural Broadband Graphic  Customer Blog (1)

As in the 1930’s, the US government is currently attempting to resolve this challenge. Last year, the FCC approved $5 billion to improve rural broadband. And with the recent passing of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal (July 28, 2021), $65 billion is slated to be invested to ensure that "every American has access to reliable high-speed internet with an historic investment in broadband infrastructure deployment." President Biden has received both criticism and praise for pushing to expand the scope of infrastructure. But ensuring internet access is broadly popular. In a recent survey conducted for The New York Times by the online research platform SurveyMonkey, "78 percent of adults said they supported broadband investment, including 62 percent of Republicans."

Businesses as well have consistently supported investing in broadband. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable all have called for federal spending to help close what is known as the “digital divide.”

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Approaches to accomplishing rural broadband expansion
Fixing America’s connectivity problem, both in terms of access and affordability, opens up a … can of worms, so to speak. Among the issues are:

  • A Faulty FCC Map
    Inaccurate information about which services are available to specific addresses and areas limits the public funding that providers can receive to improve their networks in those areas.

    The good news is that recently the FCC took action to improve its broadband data collection practices, requesting fixed broadband providers to submit more granular electronic coverage maps. This more granular data collection will lead to a more accurate broadband map and better targeting of federal resources.

  • Quantifying the Definition of Broadband:
    According to The New York Times (May 17, 2021):
    “Quantifying that divide, and its economic cost, is difficult, in part because there is no agreed-upon definition of broadband. The Federal Communications Commission in 2015 updated its standards to a minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second. The Department of Agriculture sets its standard lower, at 10 megabits per second. A bipartisan group of rural-state senators asked both agencies this year to raise their standards to 100 megabits per second. And speed-based definitions don’t take into account other issues, like reliability and latency, a measure of how long a signal takes to travel between a computer and a remote server.”

  • Building Fiber Infrastructure Vs. Utilizing Existing Telephone Company Networks
    Who should subsidize the operating costs? Should if be dependent upon rural telephone companies with their existing networks, or specifically via broadband buildout (fiber)? Though the FCC has reformed the program to provide long-term funding assurances in return for a buildout commitment, the implementation has been seen as questionable due in part to the FCC lacking precise information as to where there is inadequate service. There are a host of success stories that occur when the funding has gone directly to pay for the capital costs of fiber infrastructure. But the debate remains.

As we can see, this isn’t going to be easy. Stringing fiber optic cable costs about $20,000 per mile. That’s a lot of money to spend when some rural areas may only have a few houses for every mile of cable, which is the same problem that had to be overcome in the 1930’s with rural electrification. But we resolved the problem then, and we can resolve it now. There are promising approaches to expanding broadband infrastructure, and we can all agree that the ultimate goal is reaching a hundred per cent of Americans with high-speed broadband service.

Next month we’ll talk about the carrier market space, what trends we’re seeing, how fiber connectivity and smart optics play a leading role, and how PivIT is engaged with OEM’s to help connect rural America to robust broadband internet solutions.

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