State of the Nation: An Update on Rural Broadband in the U.S.

By Matthew Vulpis October 06, 2021

Today, technology and the internet have become essential for everyone, which is why broadband is now increasingly intertwined with the daily functions of modern life. It is transforming agriculture, supporting economic development initiatives, and is a critical piece of efforts to improve health care and modernize transportation. However, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates that 21 million Americans still lack broadband access, while other sources place this number as high as 162 million.

Communities without reliable high-speed internet service cite a growing gap between the resources and opportunities available to their residents and those in communities that have a robust network, and today, many of these broadband-less communities are in rural areas. Roughly 72 percent of rural Americans say they have a broadband internet connection at home, according to a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults.

While recently rural Americans have made large gains in adopting digital technology over the past decade and have narrowed some digital gaps, recognizing the importance of broadband and responding to such frustrations, states are now seeking a way to close this gap. And it’s no surprise broadband access has jumped to the top of most rural priority lists, as the technology holds a myriad of benefits for the communities, and those who reside in them.

To start, research suggests that the social returns to investment of broadband in rural areas are significant. Increasing access and usage of broadband infrastructure in rural areas, and the amenities, digital skills, online education, and job search opportunities that come with it, can lead to higher property values, increased job and population growth, higher rates of new business formation, and lower unemployment rates, according to researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

On top of this, broadband expansion can also improve health and life outcomes, offering access to remote healthcare providers, online social networks, and educational opportunities. Overall, the World Bank estimates that a 10 percentage point increase in broadband penetration can lead to a 1.2% jump in real per capita GDP growth in developed economies.

However, most of the issues of bringing fast broadband to rural areas are a direct result of the low density of housing in rural areas. Low housing density translates into high cost for any land-based broadband technology. This means that finding funding is almost always the biggest challenge for rural broadband networks.

Funding isn’t the only challenge, as internet service providers may also face operational risks. These usually arise from failing to execute the original business plan well and include issues such as bundling the launch of products, cost overruns, losing the faith of the public, or encountering external issues such as problems in the supply chain.

Finally, there are also competitive risks to deploying broadband in new markets. Companies that have never sold in a competitive environment often have problems with marketing and selling broadband. Competitors can cut prices or try to lock customers into long-term contracts. Competitors can also react by upgrading technologies to offer faster broadband.

Coming Together to Find a Solution

Although there are a variety of challenges facing the expansion of broadband connection to rural areas, companies and organizations today are joining forces in order to attempt to combat these obstacles. By coming together, these alliances are hoping to finally close the broadband network gap, and make internet access available for the entire country.

For instance, The National Association of Counties (NACo), the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) and Rural LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation) have partnered to address the critical need for affordable high-speed internet for rural communities across the country. Together, the three organizations developed a mobile app that gives mobile phone users the power to accurately identify areas with low or no internet connectivity and share that information to push for change.

Now, armed with that data, the organizations will advocate for adequate funding for broadband infrastructure across the country. This accurate data ensures that broadband infrastructure receives the investments needed to provide internet access to rural communities. This partnership between NACo, RCAP and Rural LISC shows how organizations working together for rural communities can have a greater impact.

Another alliance making waves in the world of rural broadband access is the Rural Cloud Initiative (RCI). The RCI is a unique coalition of over 70 network, technology, and applications providers committed to promoting and accelerating the digital transformation of rural America. Together these partners create fully integrated solutions, with simplified deployments, accelerating Industry 4.0, and bringing broadband network access to rural communities.

Among the RCI’s major initiatives, Carbon Sequestration projects are gaining momentum as signs of climate change increase. The initial focus will be the delivery of public 5G networks to the farm and private 5G networks across the farm.  In addition, advanced networking services will integrate public and private cloud services with edge computing solutions, delivering customized applications in precision agriculture, tele-health, tele-education, and tele-work to bring sustainability and economic growth to the 1.2M family-owned farms that comprise the heartland of the United States.

It can be costly to get broadband to rural areas, but the potential payoff is high. Organizations and alliances, such as the RCI, are helping make rural broadband access a reality, and enhancing people’s lives as they do. Overall, while a combination of factors and challenges make it difficult to expand broadband access into rural communities, with technology becoming a bigger part of our lives with each passing day, the need for alliances like RCI, and the need to make internet access available for all will only become more critical as well.

Edited by Luke Bellos
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