Solving the Rural Internet Access Problem

Imagine life without the Internet: news, shopping, research, entertainment ... all out of reach.

Those older than 30 remember what it’s like. Those younger than 30 can only imagine. That is, unless they’re one of the four percent of urban Americans or 39% of rural dwellers who don’t have to imagine: It’s everyday life for them.

The four percent of urban dwellers either choose not to have access to the Internet, or are so impoverished they can’t afford it. But for most of those who live in rural areas, broadband Internet access is literally a pipe dream, and they have no choice.

Earlier this year, Billshark did a series of blogs highlighting the importance of speed to efficient functioning on the Internet, reporting on the results of various speed tests performed on the top Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and offering our readers a chance to speed test their own devices.

And speed is at the heart of the rural divide: Many people can obtain Internet access through such venues as satellite, but this option is often prohibitively expensive and unreliable. Others are still depending on horse-and-buggy dial-up access, if they can get any access at all. Or they depend on their wireless smartphones to achieve their Internet connections, which—despite recent improvements—still deliver much slower speed than can be achieved through a landline.

Because a federal court has ruled that the Internet has become an essential service similar to electric and phone service, the Federal government as well as private companies are attempting in various ways to respond to the need.

In 2015, The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established 14 projects called “Rural Broadband Experiments” in an attempt to study possible solutions.

At a House hearing on Capitol Hill last month, titled “Improving Broadband Deployment: Solutions for Rural America,” Rep. Brad Schneider, (D-IL), noted that the United States is ranked 16th in the world when it comes to reliable broadband access, despite the Internet’s having been responsible for the creation of 10.4 million jobs in this country in 2016 alone.

A study in U.S. News & World Report last year showed that adoption of high-speed Internet service in rural areas would help increase income, lower unemployment rates, and create jobs in these underserved markets. Yet, “[o]nly 75 percent of rural Americans have access to fixed (not mobile) connections of at least 10 mbps download speeds ... [a]nd only 61 percent of rural residents meet the current 25 mbps threshold for any type of technology, compared to 94 percent of their urban counterparts.”

CBS News reported last week that the FCC has committed $2 billion in subsidies over the next 10 years to help telecommunications companies bridge the so-called “digital divide.”

Part of the problem is that reliable Internet service must be carried by hardware rather than over the air. At an estimated $40,000 per mile, fiber-optic cable can be prohibitively expensive to lay, just to reach one or two homes.

“Oh, we hear about it all the time,” Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) told CBS News. “[The Internet gap is] one of our most pressing issues.” So he is trying to encourage competition to fill that gap, introducing a bill to offer tax incentives that would encourage Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to improve their rural connections.

On the private industry side, The Washington Post reported last month that “Microsoft is aiming to bring broadband Internet to millions of rural Americans within the next five years through what is now unused TV spectrum.” The paper said Microsoft will partner with local telecom services to bring broadband Internet access to 2 million rural users by 2022 using the so-called unused “white space” available on the TV spectrum.

The Post also reported that Google and Facebook are also exploring options, such as drones, lasers, and satellite, to bring affordable Internet connections to people who don’t currently have reliable access.

As we’ve heard for years, infrastructure in the United States is in serious need of repair. The Internet is part of that infrastructure, and an increasingly crucial part of it. We at Billshark hope this problem can be addressed adequately, sooner rather than later.

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