The Washington Post wrote an article recently that talked about how poor rural connectivity cost lives during a tornado in Louisiana. Around the country there are now elaborate alerts systems in areas subject to tornados and other dangerous weather events. These alerts have been shown to save lives since they give folks enough time to seek shelter or get out of the path of a storm. I apologize that the article is behind a paywall, but here is the link for anybody who can read it.
This story is not unique, and the same thing plays out whenever a bad storm passes through areas with poor broadband and cellular coverage. In this case, a family was killed by the storm because they didn’t see the storm alerts, and other people were unable to reach them to tell them about the alerts. In this particular case, a husband and wife tried to repeatedly to warn the family about the storm. But their landline connection was terrible, they didn’t have good broadband, and the cellular coverage was inadequate – so nobody was able to reach the family that ultimately got killed by the storm.
I’ve created lists many times of the benefits of rural broadband, but until I read this article, I never thought to say that good broadband saves lives. The government has spent a lot of money creating emergency alert systems for various purposes, including storm warnings. I live in a city, and I get alerts from the City for all sorts of things, including storm alerts. Living in a city means I have the option to receive alerts by text, email, or even an automated voice call – and the alerts reach me.
AT&T has collected billions of federal funding to create the First Responder Network Authority as part of the larger FirstNet effort. AT&T told the Washington Post that it added 60 small cellular sites in Caddo Parish in recent years, where this storm struck. But it’s likely that most of these sites were placed to beef up the network where most folks live and do not extend far in the rural parts of the parish.
My consulting firm administers a lot of broadband surveys every year in rural counties. These surveys are mostly aimed at helping to define areas that have inadequate broadband. But in practically every rural survey we have ever done, we find 30% of more homes saying that they don’t have home cellular coverage – sometimes a much higher percentage.
There are some potential solutions being considered to help solve this problem, but like everything the FCC gets involved in, it’s complicated. The FCC announced a $9 billion 5G fund at the end of 2020 that is aimed at improving rural cellular coverage. The mechanics of that subsidy fund have not yet been announced, and like other broadband initiatives, it seems like FCC wants to see better cellular coverage maps before trying to fund a solution. My first take is that the cellular coverage in the new FCC mapping system is probably in worse shape than the landline broadband maps.
The idea of using federal funds to improve rural cellular coverage is further complicated by the huge amounts of federal funding that are aimed at improving rural broadband. It would be extremely wasteful to give the cellular carriers money to extend fiber networks to rural cell sites when other funding should be building the same fiber routes. The big funding for rural broadband seems likely to eliminate the need to fund fiber for most rural cell sites. It still makes great sense to provide subsidies to build towers and open rural cell sites because it’s nearly impossible to make a business case for a rural cell tower that only reaches a small number of households.
None of these solutions are going to be fast, so there is no quick fix in the immediate future. But the FCC ought to be able to figure out a way to get solid cellular signals to folks like the ones in Caddo Parish who really need it. But I despair if getting this right means getting the FCC maps right, something I’m doubtful will ever happen.