19 million rural Americans have little or no internet access. Here’s how they hope to change that

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The surprising role of the rural co-ops in providing high-speed internet mirrors an important chapter in US history, and sheds light on the financial challenges of connecting rural America, where residents say the lack of high-speed internet makes them feel left behind. After hearing requests, the Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative in Mansfield (PA), surveyed its members to see if they wanted the co-op in the broadband business. The response was a resounding yes. Advocates for cellular companies say eventually there will be rural buildout for fifth generation, or 5G, cellular networks that are at least 10 times faster than fourth generation, or 4G, widely in use now. But some experts say rural residents shouldn’t hold their breath. “5G is not going to happen in rural America, not for a long, long time,” said Christopher Ali, a professor at the University of Virginia.

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association estimates that it would cost $40 billion to reach 98 percent of the 6.3 million of its members who don’t have broadband currently, and another $40 billion to reach the final 2 percent. While such costs are huge, not spending the money also inflicts an economic penalty. Those costs range from lower property prices to lost income-generating potential for residents who want to telecommute or operate businesses with an online presence. The association estimates that its 6.3 million members without robust broadband suffer lost economic gains of $68 billion, failing to receive such benefits as improved healthcare, online learning opportunities, increased housing values and obtaining savings through competitive online retailers.

19M rural Americans have little or no internet access. Here’s how they hope to change that