If you live in one of the nearly 47 million households in the U.S. that don’t have access to broadband-speed internet, you know a slow internet is more than just an inconvenience. It’s holding rural America back.
The good news is there might be a better option than a DSL internet connection in your near future. In his speech at the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) annual convention in January, President Donald Trump signed the presidential executive order on Streamlining and Expediting Requests to Locate Broadband Facilities in Rural America. The order came on recommendation from the Agriculture and Rural Prosperity Task Force the president commissioned in April 2017. The executive order is touted as a promise this administration hasn’t forgotten rural America.
“The task force heard from farmers that broadband internet access is an issue of vital concern to their communities and businesses,” the president says. “I will take the first step to expand access to broadband internet in rural America, so you can compete on a level playing field, which you are not able to do. Not fair.”
Access by rural Americans to technology and reliable internet continues to be an issue. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband as an internet connection with minimum download speeds of 25 Mbps (megabits per second). This could be through any form of internet service, whether DSL, fiber, cable, satellite or wireless.
According to a 2016 FCC report on the status of internet access, 47% of households across the country had broadband internet connection. Twenty-nine states fell below that average, and the worst speeds were all in rural states, including Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Mississippi, Ohio and Oklahoma.
While these numbers might not mean much to many urban Americans, that gap means a significant difference in online services and educational and economic opportunities.
As the president’s executive order states, the connectivity gap “hinders the ability of rural American communities to increase economic prosperity; attract new businesses; enhance job growth; extend the reach of affordable, high-quality healthcare; enrich student learning with digital tools; and facilitate access to the digital marketplace.”
Online retailers continue to force traditional brick and mortar stores, often based in small communities, to shutter locations. But online opportunities are difficult for many rural Americans to access. Eighty-three rural hospitals have closed since 2010, according to research by the University of North Carolina, but telemedicine is unrealistic without dependable internet. Job opportunities in urban areas continue to pull young talent from rural communities.
According to the August 2017 Farm Computer Usage and Ownership report by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), computer usage among farmers has grown in the past decade, though only 47% say they use a computer to conduct farm business. That is despite 71% reporting they have access to a computer and the internet.
Connection speeds were not recorded in the USDA-NASS study, but the majority of farmers said they accessed the internet via DSL (29%) and satellite (21%). The FCC says average speeds of these providers are barely more than 10 Mbps—far from the bare minimum to be classified as broadband. Slow internet speeds would contribute to why only 23% of farmers say they’ve purchased inputs online. Only 18% of farmers say they have done any marketing online, and only 44% say they have conducted any business via the internet.
The challenge for many rural communities is a lack of choice when it comes to their internet service provider and technology. Even if they wanted a faster, more reliable service than DSL, those options are limited.
Zachary Cikanek, national spokesperson for Connect Americans Now, a group dedicated to bringing faster internet connectivity to rural America, told “AgriTalk’s” Clinton Griffiths his organization is working with the FCC to explore other ways to bring connectivity to the more remote parts of the U.S. One solution is to repurpose TV white space—bandwidth that’s been vacant since 2009 when all TV signals were converted from analog to digital.
“When you’re talking about a community that’s more isolated or more remote than your standard community, that means you have to be a little more creative when it comes to connectivity,” Cikanek says. “That’s where things like the television white spaces come into play. For about 80% of the rural population, that technology is the most cost-effective.”
Cikanek says now that the federal government is signaling a concerted investment in rural broadband, the private sector will be more likely to expand into remote markets. “What they’re looking for is regulatory certainty and the development of new technologies,” he explains.
That’s where the two documents Trump signed on the AFBF stage come into play. Much of these documents contain vague language that will be difficult to measure, such as this passage from the executive order:
“It shall therefore be the policy of the executive branch to use all viable tools to accelerate the deployment and adoption of affordable, reliable, modern high-speed broadband connectivity in rural America, including rural homes, farms, small businesses, manufacturing and production sites, tribal communities, transportation systems, healthcare and education facilities.”
There are two parts of the president’s order and memorandum that might move the needle on rural connectivity. Both are seemingly bureaucratic as they reference permits and forms. The first part is from the executive order, specifically the General Services Administration. It will develop a common form and master contract for wireless facility sitings on buildings and other property owned by the federal government. The documents will enable the government to process wireless facility siting requests more efficiently.
The second part comes from the memorandum for the Department of the Interior. It will develop a plan “to support rural broadband development and adoption by increasing access to tower facilities and other infrastructure assets” it currently manages.
Ray Starling, special assistant to the president for Agriculture, Trade and Food Assistance, says this directive has teeth. He explains the memo “directs the Department of Interior to make 20% of the assets available in rural areas for rural broadband deployment. This may be as simple as putting an antenna on a building; or, it may be putting a transmitter on top of a tower that already exists. But this is a relatively easy step to take with a government asset that’s already in a rural place.”