I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy of Farm Fresh Broadband by University of Virginia professor Christopher Ali. It’s a great read for anybody interested in rural broadband. The book is published by MIT Press and is now available for pre-order on Amazon.
The first half of the book discusses the history and the policies that have shaped rural broadband, and my review of his book will focus on this early discussion, which is near and dear to my heart. Ali hit on the same topics that I have been writing about in this blog for years. Of particular interest was Ali’s section talking about the policy failures that have led to the poor state of rural broadband today. Ali correctly points out that “we have a series of policies and regulations aimed at serving the interests of monopoly capital rather than the public interest and the public good”. Ali highlights the following policy failures that have largely created the rural digital divide:
- Definition-Based Policy. The FCC has been hiding since behind its 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband since 2015. We still see this today when current federal grants all begin with this massively outdated definition of broadband when defining what is eligible for grant funding. We recently passed a milestone where over 10% of all households in the country are subscribed to gigabit broadband, and yet we are still trying to define rural broadband using the 25/3 Mbps standard. Unfortunately, sticking with this policy crutch has led to disastrously poor allocation of subsidies.
- Technology Neutrality. Ali points to regulators who refuse to acknowledge that there are technologies and carriers that should not be worthy of federal subsidies. This policy is largely driven by lobbying by the big ISPs in the industry. This led to the completely wasted $10 billion CAF II subsidy that was given to shore up DSL at a time when it was already clear that DSL was a failure as a rural technology. This same lack of regulator backbone has continued as we’ve seen federal subsidies given to Viasat in the CAF II reverse auction and Starlink in the RDOF. The money wasted on these technologies could have instead been invested in bringing permanent broadband solutions to rural areas. It looks like Congress is going to continue this bow the big ISPs by allowing grants to be awarded for any technology that can claim to deliver 100/20 Mbps.
- Mapping. Ali highlights the problems with FCC mapping that disguises the real nature of rural broadband. He points to the example of Louisa County, Virginia, where the FCC maps consider the county to have 100% broadband coverage at 25/3 Mbps. It turns out that 40% of this coverage comes from satellite broadband. Much of the rest comes from overstatements by the telcos in the county of the actual speeds. M-Lab speed tests show the average speeds in the county as 3.91 Mbps download and 1.69 Mbps upload – something that was not considered as broadband a decade ago by the FCC. Unfortunately, Louisa County is not unique, and there are similar examples all over the country where poor mapping policies have deflected funding away from the places that need it the most.
- Localism. There are hundreds of examples where small regional telephone companies and cooperatives have brought great broadband to pockets of rural America. We have made zero attempt to duplicate and spread these success stories. In the recent CAF II awards we saw just the opposite, with huge amounts of money given to companies that are not small and not local. We already know how to fix rural broadband – by duplicating the way we electrified America by loaning money to local cooperatives. But regulators would rather hand out huge grants to giant ISPs. When we look back in a few decades at the results of the current cycle of grant funding, does anybody really believe that a big ISP like Charter will bring the same quality of service to communities as rural cooperatives?
The second half of the book is the really interesting stuff, and all I supply for that are some teasers. Ali describes why farmers badly need broadband. He describes the giant bandwidth needed for precision agriculture, field mapping, crop and livestock monitoring, and overall management of farms to maximize yields. One of the statistics he cites is eye-opening. Fully-deployed smart agriculture could generate 15 gigabytes of data annually for every 1,000 acres of fields. With current land under cultivation, that equates to more than 1,300 terabytes of data per year. We have a long way to go to bring farms the broadband they need to move into the future.
I do have one criticism of the book, and it’s purely personal. Ali has a huge number of footnotes from studies, articles, and reports – and it’s going to kill many of my evenings as I slog through the fascinating references that I’ve not read before.
Doug, wonder on this line: “We already know how to fix rural broadband – by duplicating the way we electrified America by loaning money to local cooperatives.”
Aren’t coops owned/voted by/operated by their customers? They have tariff protection. They receive oodles of money from Uncle Sam and the states. They have have unique tax protection. They have a well-worn and mature financing ecosystem. Their lobbyists are among the most highly paid on Capitol Hill. And yet the owner operators of coops still haven’t “fixed” rural broadband?
Am I missing something here? What more do they need to help and serve neighboring, unserved areas/communities?
I can’t let that characterization of Cooperatives stand. First, electrification made federal loans to electric cooperatives, and those companies have not gotten additional subsidies. These companies have done well after that first burst of a federal kick-start in the 1930s to 1950s.
It’s true that telephone cooperatives got subsidies – but it’s not for the reason that you and others are implying. Congress really wanted everybody connected to the telephone network starting in 1934 – and it was a great policy since rural America was brought into the mainstream. The subsidies were due to the simple fact that these companies were limited for years by state regulatory commissions to have affordable residential telephone rates in the $10 to $15 range. Where electric companies could charge electric rates to be self-sufficient, the telephone cooperatives never had a chance to breakeven – and nobody could have supported expensive networks on that revenue stream – which prompted the Universal Service Fund. That was also a good policy – it’s hard to imagine rural America and our farms cut off from the outside world for the last 50 years. The final reason that the telephone companies needed a subsidy was that they accepted carrier of last resort obligation. Universal service means sometimes spending huge amounts to add the most remote customers to the telephone network. But this is what Congress wanted, and it was one of the biggest economic stimulators ever. It’s hard to even think of quantifying the impact of bringing rural America into the modern world.
Cooperatives are not so wildly profitable that they can self-fund building broadband to areas outside the cooperative coverage areas. To imply that they have been remiss for not doing this is cynical at best. But there have been a few electric cooperatives willing to borrow the money to build broadband in their service areas – and this was done before the current flurry of grants. But only a small percentage of cooperative are solvent enough to do that – none are solvent enough to borrow the money to bring broadband to the rest of rural America.