Subsidizing Rural Broadband

In a rare joint undertaking involving the big and small telcos, the trade groups USTelecom and NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association sponsored a whitepaper titled, Rural Broadband Economics: A Review of Rural Subsidies.

The paper describes why it’s expensive to build broadband networks in rural areas, with high costs mostly driven by low customer density. This is something that is largely universally understood, but this describes the situation for politicians and others who might not be familiar with our industry.

The paper goes on to describe how other kinds of public infrastructure – such roads, electric grids, water and natural gas systems – deal with the higher costs in rural areas. Both natural gas and water systems share the same characteristics as cable TV networks in this country and they are rarely constructed in rural areas. Rural customers must use alternatives like wells for water or propane instead of natural gas.

The electric grid is the most analogous to the historic telephone network in the country. The government decided that everybody should be connected to the electric grid, and various kinds of government subsidies have been used to help pay for rural electric systems. Where the bigger commercial companies wouldn’t build a number of rural electric cooperatives and municipal electric companies filled the gap. The federal government developed subsidy programs, such as low-cost loans to help construct and maintain the rural electric grids. There was no attempt to create universal electric rates across the country and areas lucky enough to have hydroelectric power have electric rates that are significantly lower than regions with more expensive methods of power generation.

Roads are the ultimate example of government subsidies for infrastructure. There are both federal and state fuel taxes used to fund roads. Since most drivers live in urban areas, their fuel taxes heavily subsidize rural roads.

The paper explains that there are only a few alternatives to fund rural infrastructure:

  • Charge higher rates to account for the higher costs of operating in rural areas. This is why small town water rates are often higher than rates in larger towns in the same region.
  • Don’t build the infrastructure since it’s too expensive. This is seen everywhere when cable TV networks, natural gas distribution and water and sewer systems are rarely built outside of towns.
  • Finally, rural infrastructure can be built using subsidies of some kind.

Subsidies can come from several different sources:

  • Cross-subsidies within the same firm. For example, telephone regulators long ago accepted the idea that businesses rates should be set higher to subsidize residential rates.
  • Cross subsidies between firms. An example would be access rates charged to long distance carriers that were used for many years to subsidize local telephone companies. There are also a number of electric companies that have subsidized the creation of broadband networks using profits from the electric business.
  • Philanthropic donations. This happens to a small extent. For example, I recently heard where Microsoft had contributed money to help build fiber to a small town.
  • Government subsidies. There have been a wide range of these in the telecom industry, with the latest big ones being the CAF II grants that contribute towards building rural broadband.

Interestingly the paper doesn’t draw many strong conclusions other than to say that rural broadband will require government subsidies of some kind. It concludes that other kinds of subsidies are not reasonably available.

I suspect there are no policy recommendations in the paper because the small and large companies probably have a different vision of rural broadband subsidies. This paper is more generic and serves to define how subsidies function and to compare broadband subsidies to other kinds of infrastructure.