Another Idea for Rural Broadband

An rural area west of Route 41 and Lowell, Ind...

An rural area west of Route 41 and Lowell, Indiana. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Fiber-to-the-Home Council (FTTHC) asked the FCC to give consideration for a new way to fund rural broadband. Their proposal asks the FCC to make available unused portions of the Universal Service Fund to supply grants to build gigabit fiber networks. They would have this done under a competitive process, meaning that the networks that could do this the most efficiently would be at the top of the grant list.

It’s an intriguing idea. I have often talked in this blog about the state of broadband in rural America. Consider some of the following rural broadband issues:

  • About a year and a half ago the FCC estimated that there was still about 14 million rural households with no access to any kind of terrestrial broadband. There have been some projects in the last year that now serve some of these customers, but the number is still probably not much smaller.
  • In the FCC’s last three Broadband Progress Reports the agency said that incumbent carriers were not upgrading to the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband fast enough. Those speeds are currently 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. And the FCC has promised that every few years they will revisit that definition of broadband, and supposedly will increase it over time.
  • There is often a big difference between advertised speeds and actual speeds. Getting 4 Mbps download is barely enough bandwidth for a household to participate in today’s web, and if the actual speeds delivered are less than this then it’s hard to call the service broadband by today’s reality.
  • The availability of rural broadband depends upon where a customer lives. If they live in a large enough rural town then they might have broadband available from either the telco or the cable company, and even sometimes from both. But cable networks rarely extend much past the borders of these small towns and DSL rarely carriers more than a mile or two from the center of town. So there are many rural counties that have some broadband in the towns but practically none outside the towns.
  • Most urban areas now have cable modem service that is advertised at between 10 Mbps and 20 Mbps. And urban broadband keeps improving. Rural areas are permanently falling behind and the gap is going to widen over time. This has huge implications for the long-term economic viability of rural America.

Of course, there are some organizations that have opposed this idea, mostly those organizations funded by incumbent telcos and cable companies. This always has me scratching my head. For the most part the large telcos and cable companies have ignored rural America for one or even two decades. They have not poured new capital into these areas to bring them up to the needed speeds and they spend as little as possible to keep these areas operating. I contrast this to the small independent telcos who generally do an excellent job in rural America, but there are still large swaths of rural area that have been largely ignored. And even while ignoring these areas the large telcos want to protect their revenue streams.

I guess that is good business, but it is poor policy. In my mind broadband is basic infrastructure and homes and businesses need adequate broadband in order to take part in modern society. And this is just about to become much more important as we move into the Internet of things. It’s one thing to not provide enough broadband to a rural home so that they can watch streaming videos. But when we are having our healthcare monitored by the Internet then broadband becomes an essential component of every home’s life.

The rural broadband crisis is already here and the broadband gap is already unacceptable. The FTTHC’s proposal is creative and doesn’t ask for any additional government funds. They are asking that the FCC make an investment today in rural areas as a down-payment to help those areas stay viable as places for people to live in the future. I would assume that any awards of funds are also going to expect the rural communities to chip in a lot of matching funds, and so all that is being asked is to help these communities help themselves. I think it is an idea worthy of FCC consideration.

Broadband and Schools

Satellite Internet dish attached to a...

English: Satellite Internet dish attached to a building in rural America (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Earlier this month President Obama announced an initiative to get 1 Gbps or at least 100 Mbps broadband to 99% of schools within five years. The new plan is being referred to as ConnectEd and the citation takes you to a posting on the White House web site that outlines the program.

The program will have several components. The one that will be most familiar to the readers of this blog is that the program will provide improved connectivity through the E-Rate program that is part of the current Universal Service Fund. The E-Rate program for years has been providing subsidies to bring broadband to schools and libraries in the poorest communities. One has to imagine that the FCC is going to expand that program to include money to build fiber in rural communities. It’s not clear yet how it will work, but the administration has said that the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) will take a lead in moving the program forward.

The second component of the plan will provide more training for teachers to be proficient in the technology that broadband will bring to the schools. This will be done with funding through Title II and Title VI programs through the Department of Education.

I don’t think there is anybody who can fault the goal of this plan which is to make sure that kids have access to broadband at school. Certainly students at schools that do not have broadband access will fall behind everyone else.

But for rural areas this is not enough. Over the last few years there has been a number of ‘middle-mile’ fiber networks built as part of the BTOP program using money from the 2009 Stimulus program that built rural fiber. The middle-mile projects built fiber through rural areas and also connect to ‘anchor institutions’ in those areas, meaning schools, universities, libraries and government buildings.

But in far too many cases those are the only places that got broadband out of the billions of dollars that were spent to build fiber. This is not a blanket indictment of the BTOP program because in some cases that fiber has been an incentive for carriers to build last mile fiber or wireless networks to serve rural customers. But I am also aware of many examples of BTOP fiber networks that bring fiber through a rural town, connect a school and a City Hall and nobody else.

And in many of those communities the existing broadband is poor or non-existent. It is very typical to have some sort of broadband in the towns in rural counties – generally DSL supplied by the phone company or cable modems supplied by a cable company. But in most cases the broadband in these towns is far slower than what is routinely available in big cities. But one generally only has to go a mile or two outside of these rural towns and the broadband stops. There are hundreds of counties that have this situation.

And in a lot of these areas without landline broadband there is also inadequate wireless broadband. Fiber is needed to provide broadband to cell towers if we want to use them to provide 3G or 4G data. Most rural cell towers were built along highways to serve cars and are not built where people live. And so in many rural areas there is no effective broadband.

And so it leads me to ask if there is not some way to help the communities around the schools while we bring broadband to the schools. 100 Mbps or 1 Gbps to a school is a great thing and I applaud this effort. But are we really helping rural students if once they leave school they don’t have enough broadband to do homework?

The original BTOP program that built fiber through rural communities did not go far enough. We need some way in this country to now build the rest of the fiber network and connect everybody. I would be a lot more excited about this announcement if it said that we were going to bring fiber to 99% of rural homes in five years.

I work with a lot of rural communities trying to get funding to build fiber and it is tough. These projects suffer from having a large infrastructure cost per household due to the sparse population in rural areas. These projects have a hard time getting funded through traditional funding sources like municipal bonds. If the federal government really wants to help rural areas get fiber they should be looking at ways that would help get rural fiber projects funded.

I don’t think it’s necessary for the federal government to step in and hand out the money to build rural fiber. That would probably just give us more BTOP programs and networks. But there are concrete steps the federal government could take that would make it easier to get this done. Rural communities are willing to pay for fiber themselves, but that desire is meaningless if nobody will lend them the money. So the best way to help rural America get broadband is to make it easier for rural communities to do it themselves. That is going to mean something like loan guarantees or lower interest rates for these projects.

The federal government already operates a ‘bank’ to provide rural broadband at the Rural Utility Service (RUS) that is part of the Department of Agriculture. But that money is so hard to obtain by rural governments that it might as well not exist. It would be easy to make the RUS into a functional program – it just takes the will to make it work.

In the last year we have had two big announcements at the federal level about broadband. One was to promote gigabit cities and now we will have broadband to 99% of schools. I am still waiting for the announcement that matters – to bring broadband to people.