A Cost-Effective Strategy to Connect Rural America

Extending broadband's reach to every American community has been a vexing problem for policymakers for years. Today, the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition offers research we believe will contribute to finding a solution. 

In a report prepared for the SHLB Coalition, CTC Technology & Energy provides a model for understanding the cost to build world‐class broadband communications to the community anchor institutions (Anchors) across the United States that are not currently connected with adequate infrastructure. The research supports the idea that deploying high-capacity broadband “to and through” Anchors to the surrounding community can be a cost-effective strategy to solve the digital divide for millions of Americans, especially those in rural areas.

Based on an extrapolation from the broadband data collected by states and using a cost model analyzing six different geographic typologies, CTC Technology & Energy estimates that deploying fiber to all the remaining Anchors that do not have high-speed connections (except those in Alaska) could cost from $13 billion to $19 billion if done in a coordinated manner over 5 to 7 years. The costs of such deployment could be lower – as much as 50 percent lower – if adequate funding is appropriated and a major, national, coordinated effort is undertaken in coordination with state and regional authorities. However, the cost could multiply many times if broadband is deployed in an ad hoc manner over a very long period of time.

The potential benefits to Anchors' communities should not be underestimated: 95 percent of residential consumers are within the zip code of an Anchor, an indication that building “to and through” anchor institutions could help bring high-speed broadband to millions of unserved residential and business customers as well.

Policymakers should encourage a blend of wireline and wireless services, as determined by local communities. While this research focuses on deploying fiber, other technologies such as fixed wireless (service delivered to a specific location via wireless connection) and unlicensed spectrum often provide cost-effective broadband services. A successful rural broadband strategy should ensure that:

  • Fiber builds take place in a coordinated deployment that leverages other infrastructure builds such as highways and tunnels ("dig once");
  • Sufficient TV White Spaces channels are available;
  • Allow E-rate and Rural Health Care networks to be extended into communities;
  • Federal and state governments collect more accurate and granular data about the broadband used by anchor institutions;
  • Networks built with government support have an open interconnection policy that will allow others to build off of those investments to serve the surrounding community;
  • Applicants for E-rate and RHC funding and other USF programs be able to submit a single application to make the most efficient use of all the USF funding programs; and
  • There is more dedicated broadband funding.

Anchors – schools, libraries, healthcare providers, community colleges, public safety organizations, and others – are the cornerstones of American communities. They serve the public interest, not special interests. This research demonstrates why policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels should incorporate the unique values of Anchors as they develop future broadband investment strategies.

John Windhausen, Jr. founded the SHLB Coalition in 2009 and became its full-time Executive Director in 2016. In prior years, he served as President of a telecommunications trade association in Washington D.C., as senior counsel to the United States Senate Commerce Committee working for Senator Hollings (SC) and Senator Inouye (HI), and as staff attorney at the FCC. Mr. Windhausen currently serves on the Board of Directors of MICTA and NDIA. Mr. Windhausen graduated from Yale University and the UCLA School of Law.