Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Rural Broadband Options Expand

07:10AM Oct 01, 2014

Public-private teams will speed up Internet

Northeast Missouri agribusiness owner John Wood admits his friends and family thought he was crazy when he resigned from the family farm back in 2000 to pursue Internet commerce. They had reservations about running a business on dialup. 

Three years into the project, two founding members resigned. Business proved slow at U.S. Wellness Meats, which sources a range of specialty meats and foods for a variety of dietary preferences. Yet as Internet speeds improved, the company expanded. Today, Wood says, the business has served customers in all 50 states. High-profile clients include the New York Jets football training table, which eats U.S. Wellness Meats at away games, too.

The equation is simple. “The faster the Internet runs, the more work people get done,” he says.

For Wood, farmers and other rural business owners, technological advances in broadband Internet capacity and infrastructure in the next decade have the potential to dramatically improve efficiency. Experts say a variety of new tools will help deliver high-speed Internet for producers across the country, driven by communities, states and private firms working together to create infrastructure.

Capacity Now and Then. It used to be Internet speeds needed only to be fast enough to send and receive email. Yet with more people using digital devices than ever, those needs have changed.

“Practically, we are looking for speeds that support uninterrupted video streaming to a laptop or tablet screen,” notes Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois Springfield. 

For the past several years, the federal government has measured absolute minimum speeds for broadband as 3 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 768 kilobits per second (Kbps) for uploads, says Anne Neville, director of the State Broadband Initiative at the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration. 

“The higher speeds are where most of the work remains,” Neville explains. “For example, at 50 Mbps, about 47% of rural Americans have access, but 91% of urban residents do.” 

New media will also stress existing broadband capacity. 

“Improved algorithms for delivery of video streams will offer some advantages, but the advent of 3D video will put further demands on the data streams,” Schroeder adds.

Infrastructure Needs. A variety of infrastructure options will exist for future broadband, including systems such as wireless mobile.

Mobile networks can be “particularly advantageous to farmers because they have massive amounts of land that need to be reached,” explains Michael Horney, who studied broadband and technology policy at George Mason University. “From the provider’s perspective, building and upgrading a mobile network in rural areas is generally less expensive than a wireline network.” 

Now a research associate at the free-market think tank The Free State Foundation, Horney thinks part of the infrastructure solution might involve regulators providing longer spectrum life—the period of time in which a company may provide Internet access at a specified frequency—to broadband companies in exchange for better coverage. 

Municipalities also can delay broadband projects by requiring broadband companies to meet a “long process of administrative and political red tape because it offers some sort of utility,” Horney notes. Farmers can work toward more Internet access in the future by petitioning local and state government to ease up on those regulations.

Beyond negotiations, time and work will be required to install cell towers and repurpose unused frequencies for greater coverage. New infrastructure options might be available to consumers.

“There is also the potential for medium- and low-altitude satellite services to provide additional ser-vices that will cover the continent and perhaps the globe,” Schroeder says. “These services involve launching clouds of satellites ... that move around the earth at lower altitudes, requiring less transmission power to provide a seamless service.” 

Whether Google or another tech giant pursues such a program, it’s likely the corporate world will have a major stake in shaping broadband. 

Future Funding. In addition to corporate partners, rural communities and government agencies will have a role in paying for the high-speed Internet of the future. Part of the impetus in the next decade will be on producers to demonstrate there is a need for these services in their communities, Horney notes. 

“Providers need to see there is a demand before getting positive return on their investment,” he says. 

As that happens, a variety of funding mechanisms have already been made available. As part of funding included in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the National Telecommunications and Informa-tion Administration awarded $3.5 billion in grants to bring broadband to unserved and underserved areas, notes the administration’s Neville. For example, the North Georgia Network received a $33.5 million grant to build an 1,100-mile fiber optic network across 12 counties in the Appalachian foothills located throughout North Georgia.

Aim for Efficiency. Despite any challenges ahead, the opportunities presented to rural areas by high-speed Internet in the next 10 years will outweigh costs by a large margin.  

For Wood, whose company sells specialty foods from a tiny Missouri town, the possibilities are endless. 

“It is the key to retaining the Y generation in the rural area,” he says. “We send our best and brightest off to major universities and few return to the rural community. Having super broadband service creates a win-win for raising young families and breathing life back into dying rural communities … . The world is available to those willing to sell or trade into the world market.” 

Future Broadband Infrastructure

Most Americans are familiar with traditional means of getting high-speed Internet into their homes, such as wireline connections and wireless mobile technology. In the future, experts say, those systems will remain, only with vastly improved capacity to transfer large volumes of information. Additionally, new systems on Earth and in space might be added.