As the novel coronavirus has spread across the United States, so too have efforts to bring Internet access to digitally disconnected households during a time of nationwide social distancing.
This report illustrates the remarkable progress cooperatives have made in deploying fiber optic Internet access across the country. It features updated maps that show areas already covered by cooperative fiber networks, areas where cooperative fiber networks expanded between June 2018 and June 2019, and areas where cooperatives are currently building out new infrastructure. A few important takeaways:
The Taxpayers Protection Alliance has returned with another puzzling attempt to discredit municipal broadband networks. TPA’s report offers 30 short case studies and there is no explanation of how TPA chose this odd subset of municipal networks. Yet they allege a failure of the network or failure to pay debt in only 9 of its examples.
After Frontier Communications claimed that it now offers broadband in 17,000 rural census blocks in an effort to remove those areas from the Federal Communications Commission’s upcoming rural broadband funding program, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance filed comments with the FCC to draw attention to Frontier’s questionable claims. “We are concerned that Frontier may have overstated its capacity to actually deliver the claimed services in many areas,” the comments read.
Rural North Dakotans are more likely to have access to fiber connectivity and gigabit-speed Internet than those living in urban areas. This case study highlights the efforts of 15 local companies and telephone cooperatives who came together to invest in rural North Dakota and build gigabit fiber networks across the state. Their success is traced back to the companies’ acquisition of 68 rural telephone exchanges from monpoloy provider US West (now CenturyLink) in the 1990s.
A group of local governments and private partners, led by Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (NWCCOG), recently completed the first phase of Project THOR, a middle mile fiber network that will enable better connectivity in the participating towns, cities, and counties. The network, owned by NWCCOG, provides backhaul to local governments looking to connect public facilities, schools, hospitals, and other community anchor institutions.
To connect students on the wrong side of the digital divide, school districts in a number of cities, including Portland (OR) and San Francisco (CA) are working with Comcast to sponsor the cost of the company’s Internet Essentials program for low-income families in need of home broadband connections during the crisis. They plan to pay the monthly cost of Comcast’s Internet Essentials plan for eligible households. The school systems will distribute promotional codes to families who can then contact the company to sign up for broadband access at no cost.
There’s a belief out there that households don’t really want or need more than a basic broadband connection, much less gigabit connectivity. This mistaken impression especially affects rural areas, where observers point out that a resident may have more fingers on their hand than Megabits per second (Mbps) on their current Internet connection, so surely they’ll be satisfied with a bump up to broadband speeds of 25 or 50 Mbps. However, demand for high-speed connectivity is actually quite robust in rural areas where the infrastructure exists.
Many national Internet service providers (ISPs) have introduced free and discounted plans to keep people connected during the crisis (though there are still holdouts). The charity of these companies is commendable, but their plans still leave many people disconnected, forcing them to choose between staying safe at home and accessing essential services. Eligibility oversights leave out households in need, and overwhelmed call centers make signing up for programs difficult.
The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) ReConnect broadband program, which awards grants and loans to expand rural connectivity, has distributed more than $620 million to 70 providers in 31 states as part of ReConnect round one. Just over half of the awardees are community networks, including rural cooperatives, local governments, community agencies, and a tribal provider. The other ReConnect awardees are locally owned providers.