When you’re running a business all you want is good cell coverage and a strong internet signal. If you’re in rural America, both of those can be hard to come by. That could change in the future.
The future of rural connectivity is promising because two factors have aligned to speed the development of broadband networks: the government has placed a priority on developing those networks, and private industry realizes a positive business case to build broadband infrastructure.
“Reliable broadband is critical for nearly every aspect of life, from education to health care to agriculture and beyond,” says Sonny Perdue U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. “By working across the federal government and by harnessing public-private partnerships as USDA has done for decades, we are doing all we can to bring reliable, affordable broadband to homes, farms, ranches, schools and healthcare sites throughout rural America.”
The 2018 farm bill provides funding to hurry rural high-speed broadband development. The bill expands loan and grant programs, strengthens interagency cooperation and prioritizes projects that bring access to underserved areas.
A USDA pilot program is offering $600 million in grants and loans to help build broadband capacity in sparsely-populated areas. The program provides non- and for-profit orgs, including local governments, the means to receive funds for infrastructure development and improvement. USDA will also provide a 25% matching grant, a 2% low-interest loan or a combination of both. A proposed rule is expected to be released in May, with three application periods between April and June and funds to be distributed beginning in the second half of 2019.
Speed is the key, as funded projects must create upload speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (mbps) and download speeds of 3 mbps. The Federal Communications Commission 2018 Broadband Deployment Report states 92.3% of all Americans had access to broadband at those speeds. However, only 68.6% have that access in rural areas, leaving more than 24 million Americans lagging behind.
In addition to the pilot program, the American Broadband Initiative released a report in February 2019 outlining recommendations for:
- More towers. The Department of the Interior (DOI) mapped more than 7,000 new tower locations primarily in rural areas. These towers will be available to service providers seeking to locate equipment on federal property as they expand networks.
- More assets. In addition to the DOI towers, the General Services Administration (GSA) will identify additional federal assets that can be used by service providers to expand into rural markets, ideally as a cost-saving opportunity.
- Streamlined permitting. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration will publish information on current project workflows, providing a single location for information on federal permitting of broadband infrastructure. In addition, GSA will streamline the permitting process to “be more responsive to stakeholder needs.”
The federal government steps to improve broadband access are admirable, but they aren’t enough.
“This digital divide continues to hold rural America back in nearly all aspects of everyday life: healthcare, education, business investment and general economic development, farm income, civic engagement and even property values,” says Bill Laduca, sector vice president, electric distribution with CoBank.
A CoBank report cites a recent study conducted by Purdue University that estimates the state of Indiana would realize a net benefit of $12 billion if rural broadband investments were made statewide.
During the past few years, electric distribution cooperatives have been building fiber networks as a way to service underserved markets for the benefit of their own operations and their customers. Many of the electric cooperatives have entered into the broadband space through partnerships with other cooperatives.
Regardless of how the broadband infrastructure is built, many in rural America are missing out on technology their urban neighbors enjoy.
New App to Address Broadband Access
Three orgs have joined together to develop an app that aggregates broadband speeds from mobile devices to help identify gaps in coverage. Armed with that data, the National Association of Counties, the Rural Community Assistance Partnership and Rural LISC will advocate for broadband infrastructure funding.
TestIT (available for iOS and Android) allows users to be active participants in the national effort to bring awareness about the lack of high-speed internet connectivity in rural America. With the app, users can test their broadband speed from anywhere.
Snapshots of individual tests will be collected within a database, allowing partners to analyze connectivity data across the country. This data will bridge the gap between rural residents’ everyday experience and connectivity data provided by internet service providers, which is often inaccurate and inflated.
How does broadband stack up in your area? To find out, check out the map at bit.ly/stronger-broadband