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Rural Broadband May Soon Get a Boost


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In my previous NoJitter article, I shared how carriers are sunsetting copper-based services in favor of faster, more cost-efficient fiber networks. Rural broadband services are one of the key areas impacted by this transition. The aging carrier copper networks have struggled to support the growing end-user demand for Internet services. Help with this transition may soon be on the way.
A digital divide in the U.S. became evident during the pandemic. Because many people work from home, those with limited Internet capacity have struggled with slow upload and download speeds if they have reliable service at all. People who can’t afford Internet services have felt the impact more deeply. Essential services are now available online. Additionally, technology advances have enabled explosive growth in telemedicine, videoconferencing, and online education. These services are great options for reaching those in remote and poor communities.
Rural areas are not the only ones with slow Internet speeds and limited availability. Economically disadvantaged areas seem to be the last place that network improvements occur. But pockets in major metropolitan areas that have older copper infrastructures also exist. If someone can afford service, it’s often the least desirable service, such as copper-based DSL with substantially slow speeds. We live in a digital world, and it’s hard to keep pace when Internet services are difficult or even impossible to get. One of the big organizations hit hard was school districts. With schools closed and Internet access unstable or inaccessible, they stepped up to fill the gap. For example, a large school district in Texas installed external Wi-Fi access points around their neighborhoods so students could log in for classes. Local churches also offered free Wi-Fi to congregants and populations they serve, all to equalize access to reliable Internet service.
The good news is that numerous Americans lacking access to fixed broadband declined 30% during 2017 and 2018. According to a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) April 2020 report, more than 85% of Americans now have access to fixed terrestrial broadband service at 250/25Mbps, a 47% increase since 2017. Rural Americans having access to 250/25Mbps fixed terrestrial broadband more than tripled between 2016 and 2018. There has been significant progress since then.
Rural broadband may get a massive boost because of the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by the Senate last month. It’s currently in the House, with a vote expected later this month. It also directs $65 billion toward extending broadband networks to those who don't have access or cannot afford service. This investment is the largest in broadband in decades. Here are some key takeaways from the bipartisan infrastructure bill:
  • States received $40 billion to improve local ISP networks, demonstrating their critical role in expanding broadband access. Interesting to note, there was a lot of debate about what is an acceptable bandwidth speed. Democrats were campaigning for 1gbps as republicans lobbied for 25mbps. They compromised on 100Mbps/20Mbps, which is a vast upgrade of bandwidth for many underserved populations.
  • Providers that accept government funds must offer a low-cost tier of services. Providers must also clearly define the bandwidth speeds and reliability they offer.
  • $14 billion will be applied to create an “emergency broadband benefit” fund allowing a $30 subsidy towards broadband services for qualifying households. This item carried over from the December 2019 COVID-19 relief package. One of the key reasons customers do not have broadband is the price, this part of the package puts money directly into the consumers’ pockets to pay for the service.
  • $2 billion will go to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for rural broadband programs. Additionally, $2 billion will go to the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, which provides grants to Tribal nations for broadband projects. These investments will have a direct impact on the improvement of local economies.
  • Grant monies for local government, nonprofits, and private sector entities to fund basic digital skills training and access to connected devices. It doesn’t matter how fast your Internet speed is if you don’t know how to use the technology connected to it.
  • $1 billion will fund building out the "middle mile" of the broadband infrastructure—a critical component in connecting the last mile at the customer's home or business to the Internet backbone. The middle mile gets accomplished through a combination of many types of transmission services. These include dark fiber, interoffice transport, backhaul, carrier-neutral Internet exchange facilities, wired and private wireless infrastructure including microwave capacity, radio tower access, fiber links, and associated supporting equipment.
  • The FCC must come up with a plan to reform the Universal Service Fund (USF). With congressional funding for improvements to our national broadband infrastructure, it's time to address the FCC's assumptions about what the USF requires. This program funds telecommunications services for rural hospitals, libraries, and schools. Each customer's telecom bill contributes a percentage to the universal service fund. The contribution percentage for the third quarter of 2021 is 31.8%, a large chunk of a telecom invoice. USF reform has huge benefits for all telecom customers.
If this bipartisan infrastructure bill passes, it could mean so much for so many Americans. Employees can work from anywhere, regardless if they reside in rural or underserved regions with reliable, improved Internet speeds. Employers can search out the best talent rather than tying themselves to a geographical location. Our healthcare providers can serve patients better where local resources are unavailable through upgraded bandwidth with telemedicine. Businesses can locate facilities where the workforce is without a degradation of service. Local rural economics can thrive in places where people choose to live rather than just urban centers. And sadly, kids, you may never have another snow day again!

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Denise is writing on behalf of the SCTC, a premier professional organization for independent consultants. Our consultant members are leaders in the industry, able to provide best of breed professional services in a wide array of technologies. Every consultant member commits annually to a strict Code of Ethics, ensuring they work for the client benefit only and do not receive financial compensation from vendors and service providers.