Bringing High-Performance Broadband to Rural America

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Digital Beat

Bringing High-Performance Broadband to Rural America

Jon Sallet

Broadband networks do not reach millions of people in the United States. And this lack of access has a significant impact. Research shows that in rural counties with better access to broadband services, the millennial population increased between 2010 and 2016, in stark contrast to the tendency in recent years for most rural communities to lose young people.

We cannot let where we live determine our potential to connect

Many rural communities understand the importance of broadband to their future and they are taking matters into their own hands.

For example, drive about 80 miles from Washington, D.C., and you can find yourself in the northern portion of Queen Anne’s County, Maryland. Queen Anne’s combines:

Microwave-based service reaches some farms in northern Queen Anne’s, while other farms opt for satellite. One successful farmer spends as much as $1,000 per month to run his agricultural operations off of a mobile cellular network.

Robust broadband is tantalizingly close: A farm across the Chester River in Kent County enjoys a 1 Gbps symmetrical service, and a line of dark fiber installed by the State of Maryland runs only a few feet from the front gate of a Queen Anne’s County farm—accessible to broadband providers but unused.         

One new possibility appeared in September 2019, when a rural electric cooperative serving Maryland’s Eastern Shore announced that it would seek regulatory flexibility in order to deploy fiber to rural residents.

The research I’ve done for Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s led me to observe Queen Anne’s County's work to connect.

On the afternoon of July 18, 2019, the Broadband Committee of Queen Anne’s County gathered to discuss how to get more broadband to more county residents. On that day, they met with their new consultant, practiced in the art of broadband funding and deployment, and they listened to an outside speaker describe the different ways that different places in America were solving their broadband problems.

In the meeting, members of the Broadband Committee described infrastructure limitations—expensive and relatively slow microwave connections and more farmers on more cellular systems. One volunteer said that where there was no fixed broadband, there also tended to be poor wireless service—so poor that physical therapists from a regional hospital making house visits had trouble connecting back to their hospital through mobile hotspots to run their physical-therapy software. Another volunteer emphasized the importance of having the infrastructure available so that students can complete their homework assignments on school-equipped wireless devices.

At the heart of their concern was the future of their community. Said one volunteer, “When we talk about precision farming, if you don’t have internet, you probably lack cell phone service. So, if you don’t have that, then you don’t get younger people relocating here, and then you don’t get hospitals and other institutions that grow the community.”

The question wasn’t why broadband was needed; the questions centered on how to get it:

  • How to surmount the cost of rural deployment?
  • How to apportion county resources among competing needs?
  • How to overcome state legal barriers?
  • How to find other sources of funding?
  • How to find broadband providers willing to take on the job of additional deployment?
  • How to figure out the right balance between supporting private investment and ensuring that public dollars deliver benefits to the public?

What we know in 2019 is that we cannot let where we live determine our potential to connect.  When people in rural America are connected, everyone who uses the network benefits—from Western rancher to urban hipster.

We know that the future of agriculture is now rooted in broadband. The advantages of connectivity can be as simple as bringing internet access to a local poultry farm that needs to monitor its chicken houses, or as technologically daunting as precision agriculture’s ability to collect and analyze data about variation in nutrient and moisture levels in individual fields.

We know that High-Performance Broadband can help close the rural health-care gap and solve some of health care’s most enduring problems and intractable challenges: delivering massive cost-saving opportunities to slow runaway health-care cost growth; and enabling patients to harness a new generation of connected-care devices that help patients live longer and more productive lives by extending connected care everywhere.

What we need is leaders at all levels of government to ensure that everyone in America is able to use High-Performance Broadband in the next decade.

For more on Broadband for America's Future: A Vision for the 2020s, please sign up for updates.

Download a special Benton Report by Jonathan Sallet

Jonathan Sallet is a Benton Senior Fellow. He works to promote broadband access and deployment, to advance competition, including through antitrust, and to preserve and protect internet openness. He is the former-Federal Communications Commission General Counsel (2013-2016), and Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Litigation, Antitrust Division, US Department of Justice (2016-2017). ​

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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