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.