Rural Communities Left in the Digital Dust
January 12, 2017


Rural areas have been left in the dust when it comes to staying up to speed in the digital age. Thirty-nine percent of rural Americans and 41 percent of tribal lands lack access to basic 25 Mpbs broadband service. Compare those numbers to only 4 percent of urban residents.

The recent presidential election revealed that this lack of broadband access is having real impact.  At the recent “Transforming Communities” event hosted by Next Century Cities, SHLB, and US Ignite, Senator Angus King compared two maps – one of the digital divide and one of the electoral map from the presidential election. The similarities were striking. “Part of the reason the map looks like this,” Senator King commented, “is the widespread and not irrational perception of people who live in these areas that they’re being left behind. That they’re not included in the national economy.” He concluded, “One of the things they’re missing is broadband.”

To address this rural/urban digital divide, we recently hosted a webinar on “Partnerships and Rural Broadband Needs”.  We have also crafted the Rural American Broadband Connectivity (Rural ABC) Program for the Trump Administration (see below).

The Internet has become perhaps the most important basic infrastructure – in fact, some argue that broadband access to the Internet is a “meta-infrastructure” that benefits transportation, energy and all other infrastructures. Internet access is necessary to learn, participate in the global economy, and connect beyond your community. It is particularly crucial for rural areas that battle outmigration. As Joanne Hovis, President of CTC Technology and Energy, pointed out in the webinar, rural communities need broadband to retain and attract people. Without the ability to do homework, obtain medical care through telehealth networks, or telework from home, residents will move to places where they can.  The closure of rural hospitals is nearing crisis levels, and many rural communities rely on telemedicine since the nearest hospital may be a four-hour drive away.

Despite the obvious need, deploying rural broadband networks is often not economically viable. As noted in Tom Koutsky’s policy paper, rural broadband networks require substantial investment because of unique geological challenges (mountains, rivers, forest, etc). A study conducted by CTC found that the average cost of deploying fiber to a school in a metro area is $40,000 versus $596,000 in an extremely rural area. Couple this with the fact that rural communities have lower population density and it could be simply cost-prohibitive to deploy in rural communities.

As Chris Mitchell of the Institute of Local Reliance commented during the webinar, schools, libraries, health clinics, and other community anchor institutions are important resources when rural communities struggle to get Internet access. Nearly half of all public libraries are in rural areas, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) reports that the average number of visitations per capita in rural areas is significantly higher (6.7 visits per year versus 5.7). Anchor institutions are a vital hub. Therefore, the first step in connecting America’s rural communities is to connect to and through the anchor institutions.

SHLB’s Rural ABC Program, as is SHLB’s guiding mission, is built around this philosophy. Anchor institutions have the power to reach and connect every person in America. But certain steps need to be taken in order to bring rural anchor institutions up to speed. First, rural communities need to conduct a needs assessment to identify gaps in coverage. After all, local communities know themselves better than anyone. Next, a wide range of federal solutions need to be put in place (“dig once” strategies, low-interest bonds and loans, tax credits, direct funding) in order to address the cost challenges identified above. As Joanne Hovis notes, private-public partnerships will be a crucial component in broadband deployment and have proved successful in transportation, public transit, water, and airport investment.

Third, anchor institutions need to explore creative solutions. As described by Mark O’Connor during the webinar, TV White Space (TVWS) technology has the ability to broadcast wireless broadband signals from a library to a hotspot miles away. This technology is especially suited for rural areas, which has more open spectrum channels. Gigabit Libraries Network will be hosting a webinar series to explore TVWS’ potential in rural areas as well awarding grants for libraries around the country to install it.

With rumors of an infrastructure bill in the works, the SHLB Coalition is preparing to participate actively in these debates.  Please let us know if you would like to join our Coalition and support our advocacy for open, affordable, high-capacity broadband for anchor institutions and their communities.  Together we can bring our rural communities up to speed.

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