We spend a lot of time arguing policy questions, such as asking if 25/3 Mbps is adequate broadband. What policymakers should really be talking about are the huge numbers of homes with dreadful broadband. The worst thing about the deceptive FCC maps is that they often give the perception that most rural areas have at least some broadband options when many rural residents will tell you they have no real broadband options.
Policymakers don’t grasp the lousy choices in many rural areas. The FCC maps might show the availability of DSL, but if it’s even available (often it’s not), the speeds can be incredibly slow. Rural households refuse to pay for DSL that might deliver only 1 or 2 Mbps download and practically no upload.
I think the FCC assumes that everybody has access to satellite broadband. But I’ve talked to countless rural residents who tried satellite broadband and rejected it. Real speeds are often much slower than advertised speeds since trees and hills can quash a satellite signal. The latency can be crippling, and in places where the speeds are impaired, the high latency means a household will struggle with simple real-time tasks like keeping a connection to a shopping site. Satellite plans also come with tiny data caps. I’d like to put a few Washington DC policymakers on a monthly data plan with a 40 GB or 60 GB cap so they can understand how quickly that is used in a month. But the real killer with satellite broadband is the cost. HughesNet told investors last year that its average revenue per customer was over $93 per month. Many rural homes refuse to pay that much for a broadband product that doesn’t work.
We hear a lot of stories about how fixed wireless technology is getting better to the point where we’re hearing preposterous conversations about bringing gigabit fixed wireless to rural areas. There are still a lot of places with woods and hills where fixed wireless is a poor technology choice. I worked with one county recently that gathered thousands of speed tests for fixed wireless that showed average download speeds under 5 Mbps and upload speeds below 1 Mbps. There are still a lot of WISPs that are cramming too many customers on towers, chaining too many towers together with wireless backhaul, and selling to customers who are too far from towers. This is not to say that there aren’t great WISPs, but in too many rural places the fixed wireless choices are bleak.
Rural residents have also suffered with cellular hotspots. These are the plans that cellular companies have had for years that basically price home broadband at the same prices and data caps as cellular broadband. During the pandemic, I’ve heard from families who were spending $500 to $1,000 per month in order to enable home-schooling during the pandemic. This product is not available in huge parts of rural America because of the poor or nonexistent cellular coverage. We complain about the FCC’s broadband maps, but those are heads and tails better than the cellular company coverage maps which massively overstate rural cellular availability.
There is some relief in sight for some rural homes. I recently talked to farmers who are thrilled with the T-Mobile fixed cellular product – but they said distance from cell sites is key and that many of their neighbors are out of range of the few cell sites found in most rural counties. There are rural folks who are happy with Starlink. But there are a lot of people now into the second year on the waiting list to get Starlink. Starlink also has reported problems with trees and hills and also comes with a steep $99 per month price tag.
When a rural household says they have no broadband connection, I’ve learned that you have to believe them. They will have already tried the DSL, fixed wireless, satellite, and cellular hotpots, and decided that none of the options work well enough to justify paying for them. The shame is that the FCC maps might give the impression that residents have two, three, or four broadband options when they really have none.