In rural America slow internet can mean more than missing shows on Netflix. Poor service limits access to health, business, and education opportunities that are readily available in urban locations with fast networks.
Don’t just take it from me. Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) recently said that rural broadband is “critically important” for providing telehealth services, global market access, and education benefits to the rural Montanans he represents. Getting that access, however, is too expensive for most of them to pay for it individually. As a solution, Tester declared the need for a “nationwide effort” for rural broadband deployment. So where would that money come from?
So far, major telecommunication companies have kept their attention on urban markets. Even when they have made the effort to tackle rural access, they have later scaled back on their commitments. Why? Customers were using too much data on their “unlimited” service plans. It’s an easy economic decision for them to make, but it doesn’t help the 39 percent of rural Americans living without high-speed internet access.
In place of private companies, federal funding has been crucial in deploying rural broadband. But the level of funding has not kept pace with technology. As internet speeds get faster, the technology and infrastructure required to provide them becomes more expensive.
At the start of the past century, electrification presented a similar problem, and FDR solved it by directing money toward local cooperatives willing to put in the effort required for expansion. That model could apply to providing broadband too, but restrictions on municipal networks, public-private partnerships, and other regulations make it harder to direct federal dollars toward expanding broadband as efficiently. Despite the expansion of programs like Lifeline, Connect America, and others, the digital divide persists.
There is also the need to educate rural users about the opportunities that broadband can provide. Although it might surprise many city dwellers, the leading reasons for why rural Americans aren’t online don’t have to do with money. Instead, “don’t need” and “not interested” rank above financial concerns.
While experts debate how to deploy broadband and what level of funding should be directed toward fostering adoption, the FCC seems to have an entirely different solution, and it’s not what you might expect.
To learn what it is and why it might not be adequate, watch the video above.