Broadband Deserts

Perhaps it’s because the death of Queen Elizabeth is everywhere in the news, but somebody sent me an article from the BBC from 2008 where then Prince Charles warned that the lack of rural broadband in the UK was going to eventually result in broadband deserts.

The now King Charles III was quoted as saying that lack of broadband puts too much pressure on the people who live without broadband and that if a solution wasn’t found to bring rural broadband that the rural areas would turn into ghost towns as people abandoned rural areas. He was particularly worried about farmers, who, even in 2008, needed broadband to thrive. His fear was that the rural UK would turn into nothing more than a place for city residents to have a second home.

He was right, of course, and we’re already starting to see problems crop up in rural areas in the U.S. that don’t have broadband. Counties with poor broadband are seeing people move away to get better jobs or to get broadband for their kids. Farmers without broadband are at a serious disadvantage compared to peers using the latest broadband-enabled technology. Real estate agents are reporting that it’s extremely difficult to sell a home that has no broadband option. Several studies have shown that students that grow up without home broadband don’t perform nearly as well as students with broadband.

There are hundreds of rural counties working hard to get fiber broadband with the hope of stemming the population loss. Many are hoping to attract people who work from home as the best way to stem population loss and stimulate the local economy. They are banking on the notion that people will want to live in a beautiful and low-cost place while working from home.

There is a lot of hope that the various grant programs will solve a huge amount of the rural digital divide. There is grant money being used from ReConnect, ARPA, and the upcoming giant $42.5 billion BEAD grants that will bring broadband to a lot of rural counties. I’m already working with some counties that feel certain that they will be getting wall-to-wall fiber.

But I’m also working with counties that are not so sure they will get better broadband. They live in parts of the country where there are no small telcos or electric cooperatives interested in serving them. They live in places where the cost of building broadband is going to push them into the high-cost category, where a 75% BEAD grant is not going to be enough to entice an ISP.

As I wrote in a recent blog, there is also no guarantee that the current grants are going to reach everywhere. I think that there is a legitimate concern that communities that don’t get funding from current grants might have a long wait to ever see gigantic broadband grants again.

The world has changed a lot since King Charles warned about broadband deserts. In 2008, the Internet was already important to some folks, but over time it has become vital to a majority of households. In the community surveys I’ve been conducting this year, I am seeing where at least 30% of homes include somebody who works remotely from home – and in some counties, that’s a lot higher. These same surveys routinely show that many homes don’t have the broadband needed to support homework for students. I routinely hear from rural businesses that are struggling due to the lack of broadband.

The UK also has a program to build rural fiber. Project Gigabit is currently using £5 billion to bring broadband to 567,000 remote homes. Most of these projects start construction in 2023 and are expected to be done by the end of 2024.

To some degree, promoting rural broadband is a demographic experiment on a large scale. Congress is better than broadband infrastructure will revitalize many rural communities and give them the basis for a sustainable economy. I have no doubts that this isn’t going to happen everywhere because faster broadband by itself is not a cure-all for social woes. But communities that make a commitment to foster the best benefits of better broadband increase the chances of surviving and thriving.

Broadband Deserts

I recently spoke with a guy who lives 30 miles outside one of the larger cities in North Carolina. Where he lives there is zero broadband. It’s hilly and full of pine trees and they can’t even easily get satellite broadband. There is zero cellular coverage. Even though most of the people who live there work in the nearby city, from a broadband perspective it’s at the end of the earth. And there is very little prospect of anybody bringing broadband there without some sort of grant or other financial assistance to help pay for the construction.

This guy’s horror stories are familiar to the millions of others who live in similar situations. In order to send or receive an email he has to drive to the top of a hill 20 minutes from his house which is dangerous due to narrow road shoulders and heavy big truck traffic. If schoolkids or others in his area want a real broadband connection they have to go even further to find one of a handful of public hot spots.

Just recently there was a blog by two of the FCC Commissioners that suggested that the ‘wealthy’ people that live in rural areas ought to pay for their own broadband connections. But this guy’s neighborhood is not full of millionaires enjoying a mountain get-away retreat – they are everyday working people. The homes in his neighborhood were built decades ago before there was broadband, so nobody can be faulted for moving to the “sticks” and then demanding city services.

I would describe where he lives as a “broadband desert.” Broadband deserts are areas of our country that for some reason are unlikely to get broadband in any form. Sometimes they are remote (often due to terrain), and sometimes these are just the leftover places that never even got good telephone copper wires. These broadband deserts are not just in the most remote parts of the northern Rocky Mountains as those in the federal government might imagine – there are pockets of broadband deserts around all of us. A few years ago I was working with one of the most populous counties in Minnesota and they were shocked when our research identified a number of such pockets scattered around their county.

I believe these broadband desert areas are on the verge of being abandoned and blowing away if we can’t find a way to get them broadband. We have had three other major events in US history that have created ghost towns. The first was when many little towns were bypassed by the railroads in the late 1800’s and disappeared as a result.  Secondly, in the early 20th century, towns that didn’t get electricity faded away. And finally, later in the 20th Century, a number of little towns that were bypassed by the then-new Interstate highway system languished and many have now disappeared.

Broadband is next on this list of breakthrough technologies that will be vital for communities to continue to flourish. Towns without broadband are going to become irrelevant. People who live in these broadband deserts will soon be unable to sell their homes and will eventually walk away from them. And certainly nobody is going to build new homes or bring new businesses to places with no broadband. Families won’t be able to raise kids in the broadband deserts. People won’t be able to partake in the work-at-home economy that is proving to be a boon to a lot of rural America. Communities that don’t find a broadband solution are going to dry up and blow away just like the towns in the old west that were bypassed by railroads.

Probably the worst reality for this guy I was talking with was that he knows what broadband can do for a town. He runs a gigabit broadband network for a city that is used to connect city buildings. I met him at a meeting of CLIC NC, a local chapter of the Coalition for Local Internet Choice – a group that strongly advocates for gigabit fiber networks. This guy can see that many other similar neighborhoods in North Carolina are getting fiber to their homes because they happen to live in an area where a cooperative or small telco is willing to invest in their neighborhoods. But the majority of these rural broadband deserts are not so lucky and there is nobody even thinking about bringing them broadband.

The clock is ticking for these broadband deserts. If there is not a solution to help these folks within a decade it might be too late. People in these broadband deserts will reluctantly leave and it doesn’t take a whole lot of egress to push any town or neighborhood onto the irreversible path towards becoming an abandoned ghost town.

It seems to me that a lot of regulators and policy people are okay with this. These neighborhoods are often not large (although in some places entire counties have no real broadband) and by being scattered they don’t have much political clout. Without broadband and cellphone coverage they can’t even call or email to complain. They are easily ignored and easily forgotten.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The Universal Service Fund was originally created to fix the problem of bringing telephone service to the most remote parts of the country. The original genesis of the USF was the belief that we are stronger as a nation when we are all connected. And that is probably truer for broadband than it was for telephone service. As a country we have the money to get broadband to everybody, but the question that most matters is if we have the political will.