Rural Broadband: Where Great Need Meets Great Economic Opportunity
Updated: Apr 4
Unless you just woke up from cryogenic sleep, you know that our work, education, relationships, and entertainment are leaning pretty heavily on the power of connectivity at the moment. COVID-19 has brought an unprecedented reliance on reliable, high-speed internet for a school system and workforce that is primarily online.
According to the US Census, in 2016 81% of all US households had access to internet that was not dial-up, though this metric also included those with a smartphone data plan. At the time, this would mean that 24 million households or more had nothing faster than dial-up to access the internet. But even while the other data sources highlight this issue, I think there is good news to be found.
Broadband deployment often faces a problem that is primarily logistical in nature: physically connecting every household in the country to fiber. Like electricity, structures have to be built to serve even the most remote of locations. Enter rural electrical cooperatives, America's utility knight in shining armor, who power more than half of America's landmass. If 81% of households are "fed" by existing physical plant or wireless, upgrading to high-speed should be less of a challenge than breaking new ground to bolt or bury new facilities across the country.
When you check out the fact sheet at the link above, you'll see that this impressively large network of electrical distribution serves just over 20 million households, a number that should sound awfully familiar in comparison to households without reliable internet access.
I'm not proposing a New Deal style government program to create rural broadband cooperatives across the US (though legislation has been in the works to fund rural broadband for a long time), but the last 20% will be the most expensive households to serve and may require unorthodox deployment approaches.
Without a bold plan, 1 in every 5 households will fall further and further behind in our current environment in which the two leading paths to success—education and employment—have both shifted online.
For some of you, this may be exactly why you got in the business: to provide essential services to underserved communities across the country. But for many others, like myself, this has been a unique opportunity to see your skills and experience align with an important social cause and chance to change the world.
"But it's just fiber, right? Surely we're not changing the world here."
But for millions of Americans, access to fiber IS life-changing. Small business owners, students, parents, recent graduates, farmers, and a multitude of others need reliable, high-speed internet to grow their businesses, careers, and families in a healthy way. The future of economic development in rural US depends on how we solve this problem.
Hang with us over the month of August as we explore this topic further and try to tackle the toughest challenges of rural broadband deployment. Questions or comments? Leave a comment below or give us a shout at email@example.com!