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A few years ago, getting online was difficult or impossible for residents of rural Nobles County, Minnesota. Families without home broadband often had to drive around to find a WiFi signal so that their children could complete homework assignments, and farmers were losing income by not responding quickly enough to fluctuating commodity prices. Agriculture, particularly corn and soybean farming, is the primary economic driver in the county, which has nearly 1,000 farms and 380,000 acres of farmland. So, the county decided to take action.
Nobles officials used a private foundation grant to perform a broadband feasibility assessment, developed a plan for a hybrid FTTP and fixed wireless access network, and then selected local engineering and utility companies to oversee construction. State grant funding and investment from a local telephone company helped the county pay for the $6.5 million project, which is set for completion by mid-2018.
The fruitful public-private partnership is just one example of how governments large and small are stepping up and taking a stance to get rural communities connected—and it’s about time. Among rural Americans, about 14 million lack mobile broadband at 10 megabits per second (mps), which is enough to stream videos and make slower downloads. And rural Americans are 10 percent less likely than Americans overall to have broadband at home. The issue extends internationally, as well. In the European Union, for example, just 40 percent of rural households have high-speed broadband access compared with 76 percent of total households.
This disconnection holds back communities, including farmers. A 2017 analysis suggested that the approximately 10.4 percent of U.S. households lacking fast broadband access are missing out on a total of $22.5 billion in annual economic benefits. For farmers, broadband access offers advantages like being about to reach online customers, and can also help with increasing yields and cutting costs. New technologies like automated animal feeding and crop watering, and digital soil assessment tools, for example, require connection.
“Many of the latest yield maximizing farming techniques require broadband connectivity for data collection and analysis, both performed on the farm, but also in remote data sensors,” American Farm Bureau Federation congressional relations director R.J. Karney was quoted as saying earlier this year.
Traditionally, private companies have had little incentive to go rural, where there are far fewer customers and often significantly higher installation costs than in urban markets. Local governments and public utilities have also hindered broadband deployment by charging Internet Service Providers (ISPs) excessively high prices on rights-of-way (access above and below ground on public and private property to lay wire) and pole attachment (rented space for wires on utility poles or in underground ducts).
And as the Federal Communications Commission has continually upgraded minimum broadband service requirements, it has only become more labor-intensive and expensive to keep rural areas up to pace. That all translates to less competition among broadband providers in rural areas, which often means higher prices and worse service for rural customers—or no service at all.
Traditionally, private companies have had little incentive to go rural.
Broadband is simply a method of delivering high-speed Internet access; a form of what we think of as “connectivity.” The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) lists several different types of broadband connections, including Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), cable modem, fiber optic line (FIOS), wireless, and satellite. The effectiveness of these broadband technologies depends on different factors, including your location. For example, DSL transmits data over copper telephone lines, so its availability and speed varies depending on your distance from the nearest phone company facility. This leaves far-flung rural customers at a disadvantage.
There are other connectivity methods, but they tend to be less reliable, slower, and/or more expensive than broadband. Mobile broadband (mobile Internet connection through a mobile device, such as a cell phone) for instance, can come with strict data caps, while satellite internet is readily available but expensive to install. Fixed wireless, another connectivity method, ferries Internet via radio waves and can be helpful in remote areas that lack a wired network, but also involves a pricey installation process. Old-fashioned dial-up, meanwhile, is by far the slowest internet delivery method.
Though it won’t help students trying to do homework, LoRa (Long Range) technology is bringing advanced agricultural technology to fields—even those without broadband access. LoRa can be integrated into agricultural operations, such as by placing data-gathering sensors in the soil and transmitting the information they collect via gateways that can handle very small amounts of data.
LoRa technology is bringing advanced agricultural technology to fields—even those without broadband access.
In 2009, before there was robust data on rural versus urban broadband access in the U.S., the Obama administration stimulus package, called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, included $7.2 billion for broadband deployment. The Rural Utilities Service received $2.5 billion of that funding, but the effort to expand broadband access ultimately proved ineffective and, in some cases, wasteful. A 2011 analysis of stimulus-funded rural broadband deployment in parts of Montana, Kansas, and Minnesota, for example, showed that the cost of expanding access per unserved household was up to eight times as expensive as the median home price in those areas.
But, rather than wait for federal funding, some communities have taken an entrepreneurial approach, partnering with private companies or gaining other private investment, and as a result have seen their broadband networks improve. In places such as Kansas City, Austin, and Provo, Google has teamed with local leaders and utility companies to build and maintain fiber networks that the cities couldn’t afford on their own, for example. Google Fiber has also reached communities in North Carolina Research Triangle Park, thanks to a joint effort with AT&T that offers residents at least one and in some places two ISP options. Lincoln, Nebraska, has partnered with private cell phone companies such as Verizon, allowing them conduit access (downtown light poles) to expand fiber networks.
And publicly owned community broadband is also on the rise; as of January 2018, there are 750 U.S. communities where a local municipality or electric cooperative provides broadband access, often resulting in lower prices than commercial ISPs.
Meanwhile, communities that have waited for federal help or a market shift are not seeing much of a change. As a result, they are missing out on benefits like economic improvement, higher property values, and reduced broadband prices that come with connectivity.
The federal government is starting to get the point. The FCC’s 2010 National Broadband Plan encouraged all levels of government to ensure ISPs easier access to rights-of-way, poles, ducts, and other wire conduits. In 2016, the FCC started classifying broadband as a utility, like electricity or telephones, and earlier this year it announced an additional $500 million toward rural broadband support. A bipartisan coalition of senators is also asking for the President’s infrastructure plan to include billions of dollars toward rural broadband.
New government approaches are already beginning to bring results. New York State’s Broadband for All initiative, aimed at achieving statewide broadband access by 2018, uses an innovative reverse-auction process to attract telecommunications companies to rural areas. Under the $500 million plan, the state has been divided into census blocks, based on FCC data that identifies areas unserved or underserved by ISPs. Grant money from the state is auctioned off to each block, with financing awarded to the private company seeking the least in state funding.
New York’s program requires that providers offer a certain speed (100 mbps) for a set price of $60 per month, and thus far both major players, like Verizon and Frontier, and smaller shops, such as Margaretville Telephone Company and Hudson Valley Wireless, have come on board. As of April 2018, the state has secured broadband access for about 2.42 million locations, or 99.9 percent of state residents.
Minnesota state government has also been pushing for rural broadband expansion, and team efforts like Nobles County’s are taking off as a result. Last year, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development awarded $26 million in grants to fund 39 broadband projects throughout the state. Grants have gone to private telecom companies such as NU-Telecom, which received $325,000 to install fiber optic lines south of the tiny city of Hanska, population 402, expanding access to nine homes and 38 businesses. The grants are part of the state’s annual Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program, the result of a 2015 advocacy push.
Connecting the entire state of Minnesota to affordable, fast, fiber-optic broadband could cost $2 billion to $3 billion, according to state officials. But with the FCC set to auction off $2 billion for rural broadband providers across the country in July, the opportunities to get connected are only growing. The federal funding will be distributed over 10 years for providers aiming to reach up to one million unserved or underserved rural homes and small businesses. There are an estimated 95 eligible homes and businesses in Nobles County alone, and several hundred more in surrounding counties.
And in the proposed 2018 Farm Bill, a key takeaway has been prioritizing rural access to broadband and infrastructure, with the aim of strengthening development initiatives which will promote jobs and economic activity in rural America. Nationwide, the type of success that New York has achieved might not be so far off.