I’ve been espousing a number of opinions lately in my blog postings about rural broadband and I thought it would be a useful exercise for myself to list what I believe about the rural broadband situation in the US. So please humor me a bit today while I summarize my beliefs.
I believe that the lack of broadband in rural America is approaching a crisis. There are millions of homes with no broadband, meaning that these homes can’t partake in modern on-line society. It’s becoming very clear that kids without broadband are at an educational disadvantage. Homes without broadband can’t be part of the new information work-at-home economy. It’s easy to think that lack of broadband is an isolated or local issue, but, when plotted on the map, most of the geographic area of the entire country has poor or no broadband.
And the issue is not just homes without broadband as there are many millions of other homes with poor broadband. There are homes limping by with slow DSL, sometimes not much faster than dial-up. There are numerous homes served by rural WISPs using wireless technology that is not fiber-fed and is only delivering a few Mbps. There are a lot of homes using satellite broadband which is costly, has latency that doesn’t allow for any real-time activity and which has miserly data caps. Finally there are homes spending hundreds of dollars per month using their cellphones as hotspots and paying the outrageously expensive prices for cellular gigabytes.
I believe that those regions without broadband will fall drastically behind. Families with kids won’t want to live there and homes in such areas will lose value. People will abandon these broadband dead zones over time and we will begin to create broadband deserts. This will inevitably create a huge drag on the US economy as rural America falls behind and withers away.
I also believe that fiber is the only real long-term solution to rural broadband – lots of fiber. The constant press about 5G wireless has convinced many that our broadband future is wireless. This might come to pass in dense urban areas, but for the 5G technology to work in a rural setting it will require almost the same amount of fiber as a FTTP network. So we need a lot of rural fiber construction even if the future delivery to the home might be wireless.
I believe that any government effort to help rural broadband needs to be spent building fiber. Today the FCC is spending a lot of money to beef up large telco DSL and cellular broadband, and these efforts are doomed to fail in rural areas. Families will be initially happy to get a 10 Mbps connection after having no broadband, but it will soon become obvious that this is not the same broadband that everybody else has. And within a decade or so a 10 Mbps connection will feel as obsolete as a 1-2 Mbps connection feels today. The CAF II DSL and cellular broadband upgrades are temporary band-aids that don’t solve the rural broadband gap.
I believe that any willing entity ought to be allowed to tackle the rural broadband gap. The successful efforts by the large telcos and cable companies to keep municipalities from building broadband in many states stinks of corruption. The large ISPs have spent millions lobbying to get anti-municipal laws passed while demonstrating that they are not willing to invest their own money in rural America. A rural county that needs broadband ought to be able to tackle the problem if they are willing to pay for it. Almost no rural municipality wants to tackle this and be the service provider. I am a huge fan of public private partnerships and see a lot of them being formed – but not every rural place in the country has a willing commercial partner and should not be penalized due to their geographic happenstance.
I believe we ought to remove any other roadblocks to solving the rural broadband crisis. We need to repeal any state or local regulations that make it harder and more expensive to build fiber. This means making it a lot easier to get onto poles and requiring pole owners and existing utilities to cooperate. This means not layering on rules for grant funding that require environmental reviews for long-established public rights-of-way. It means not requiring rural broadband projects to have to pay prevailing urban wages for rural construction. It means eliminating burdensome permitting and other rules that can slow down projects and add to costs.
I believe that government needs to play a role in solving the rural broadband crisis. One only has to look at a few successful state programs like the DEED grants in Minnesota that are being used to successfully help fund rural fiber networks. Government played a huge role years ago in making sure that the whole country got electricity and telephone service. I hope we have not grown too partisan and jaded to recognize that we need to step up and do the same thing for rural broadband. Government investments made in those earlier ventures like electrifying America literally paid back the initial government outlay hundreds of times over through the new taxes generated by the beneficiaries.
I believe we have to find a way to make it easier for those that want to invest in rural broadband to borrow the needed money. I often see that finding funding is the number one roadblock to rural fiber projects. Banks no longer make long-term infrastructure investments. We have one federal funding source at the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) that makes loans for broadband – but that system is broken. The RUS has a huge backlog of loan applications and the loan process takes too long. And the process has still not been made friendly to municipalities or start-ups and mostly only funds established telcos and electric coops. We need something new or something better to help fund rural broadband.
And finally, I believe we can do better. I believe that most Americans, including those that live in cities, understand that every part of the country should be connected together with the web. This is not a partisan issue and I’ve never met a rural politician of any political affiliation who doesn’t understand the need for rural broadband. I just wish that I could believe right now that the FCC, the Congress, the big banks and others will do the right things necessary to fix the problem – but I am afraid I am not optimistic.