Addressing the Broadband Struggles of Rural Americans
Will Biden's infrastructure plan end the broadband access and affordability nightmare?
I still get excited seeing the quaint red envelope with a DVD in my mailbox. That's because I live in a rural Ozark Mountains home in Arkansas and can't get internet access to stream films or TV shows. I can barely load social media pages on my computer. I'm hardly alone.
Roughly 14.5 million rural Americans still lack access to fixed broadband — high-speed internet access — according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
North Arkansas Telephone Company (or NATCO) is the only communications company serving my area. It's a small, locally owned business that has yet to provide anything but slow DSL (digital subscriber line). So, my only options are very expensive satellite service or using my cell phone as a mobile hotspot. Neither are ideal.
My aunt moved a quarter-mile down the road 22 years ago and I followed eight years later. We've been waiting for NATCO to catch up with technology ever since, being told time and time again that they're "working on it," only to have each broadband promise broken.
Still Waiting for Broadband for My Rural Home
We were excited when crews began laying fiber lines down our road — and to our homes — early this spring. Then, the work abruptly halted. We've since received conflicting stories from NATCO about why.
The Senate passed a bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill and if it passes the House, $65 billion will be earmarked for broadband expansion across America.
Washington says help is on the way.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law by President Biden in March 2021 and President Trump's American Rescue Plan Act, which became law in March 2020, included funding that could be used for rural broadband expansion.
Last month, the Senate passed a bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill and if it passes the House, $65 billion will be earmarked for broadband expansion across America and it would make permanent a pandemic emergency benefit for internet access to low-income households, reducing the monthly subsidy for households that qualify from $50 to $30.
The Wall Street Journal says that would be "the biggest-ever government foray into internet infrastructure." The bill includes $42.5 billion in grants to states to help extend broadband's reach and affordability to communities where they're scarce.
Broadband has become essential, especially during the pandemic, for people working from home, students learning from home and anyone desiring telehealth medical appointments. But the need for it has been serious for rural dwellers for years.
Relocating Partly for Broadband
Hyapatia Lee, 60, who lives in a small city in southern Colorado, says she was forced to move from her rural Indiana home eight years ago partially because she lacked broadband access. Lee had lived there since 1984 and local internet service had barely advanced to a slow DSL before she left.
"I needed better health care options and needed to have broadband so I could work from home and earn extra income writing books," said Lee. "I could barely download email. Here, I have better doctors and can video conference with them."
Steven Sanders, general manager for NATCO, said it's expensive for rural communication companies like his to expand their offerings through broadband. "Our area is a high-cost area to serve. It takes us a long time to recover costs," he said.
Some, including Sanders, doubt that the $65 billion earmarked for broadband in the infrastructure bill will be enough to serve all rural businesses and households. Others, including Daniel Linville, delegate for the West Virginia House of Delegates' 16th District, said it could — if the funds are used wisely.
Linville has worked on broadband legislation in his state for five years, coming up with creative ways to use funds wisely and provide rural residents' access. But, he conceded, the high expense of recovering costs for communications companies has led to monopolies in the areas they serve.
For years, Linville said, some utility companies have hindered competitors from building broadband lines. But "we made the laws so that it's easier for competitors to come in and move the lines," he noted. "It's about removing barriers to entry."
Among the new West Virginia broadband efforts: allowing a standard practice to laying fiber known as micro-trenching and creating a rural broadband mapping system, rather than relying on the FCC's system, which is often incomplete, Linville said.
Making Headway In Some Places
There have also been efforts to broaden broadband access to residents of the rural areas surrounding the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia.
Robert Bridgham, executive director for the not-for-profit Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority, a which provides internet there as well as to Tangier Island, said his organization expanded its mission in 2016 from providing broadband for commercial customers to including residential customers.
"We had a public outcry for more internet and the private wireless ISPs (internet service providers) weren't moving in some places," said Bridgham.
His organization has expanded broadband to a total of 1,700 residential customers, approximately 50% of its service area that's now on broadband, Bridgham said.
One of the continuing challenges, Bridgham said, is just defining "broadband."
The state of Virginia defines it as 10x1 (10 megabits per second, or mbps, download speed and 1 megabit per second upload speed) and awards broadband grant money to companies that meet this requirement, which is less than fast. "If we can get to 10 mbps, it is huge," said Bridgham. "But in 2021, that is not good." The infrastructure bill, as currently written, requires expansion to at least 25x3, which is how the FCC defines broadband.
Sanders said that where I live, the issue isn't money — NATCO has received state and federal broadband grants — it's about finding qualified workers to provide the service and getting necessary items to build broadband from the supply chain.
"We're having trouble finding contractors and employees," said Sanders. "The wait for fiber optic cable is about nine months." Linville's seeing similar problems in West Virginia. "No one saw this coming," he said.
As for my aunt, my neighbors and me, Sanders said his company is waiting for optical network terminals and routers. He hopes the wires to our homes will be turned on by October. I hope he's right.