What the Tech? Bringing Broadband Internet to Rural Areas

The global Coronavirus pandemic made one thing abundantly clear: there is a great digital divide in the United States where millions of Americans still have no access to high-speed internet service.

It became an increasingly important issue as people returned home to work and school kids took classes online. Slow internet speeds effectively kept many people from working, going to school, and online doctor’s appointments.

While broadband internet is widely available in large and even mid-sized cities, rural areas have either slow internet speeds or
none at all.

Over the past four months, the FCC has initiated an effort to study which parts of the country have no high-speed internet availability and ways to improve it. The challenge, of course, is cost. Providing broadband internet is expensive and companies might have to spend millions of dollars to connect just a few homes in rural areas.

This week I had the opportunity to talk with the FCC’s acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel about several issues including broadband availability.

“If there’s money to be made we will assume it can get built,” she said of internet providers bringing broadband to rural America. “But there are definitely some places where it is a hard economic case. So we have to figure out a way to support the extension of infrastructure to those communities. And you know that’s not audacious. We did it before with rural electrification. We now need to do it with rural broadband.”

Rosenworcel referenced the efforts to bring electricity to farms and homes in rural areas back in the 1930s and ’40s as part of FDR’s “New Deal”. Doing that with broadband seems easier since high-speed internet can be wireless.

Rosenworcel told me, they’re looking at every possible solution.

“Every idea needs to be on the table and new technologies are part of that,” she said. “There are places where we will bring fiber, there are also conversations to be had about fixed wireless and lower-earth orbiting satellites. Technology is evolving very fast and being able to get the unconnected communities service really fast is important too.”

Another technological possibility is the use of blimps. Tech company Sceye is testing blimps in New Mexico that hover thousands of feet above the earth and providing enough cell service for thousands of homes below to access high-speed internet.

“This is a moment where I’m incredibly optimistic because there’s more energy and attention that we are bringing to broadband policy than ever before,” she said. “There are new funding programs, not just at the Federal Communications Commission but also at the Department of Commerce, United States Treasury and at the Department of Agriculture, and all of those efforts collectively. I think we’re going to move the needle to make a difference. My hope is that we can do that sooner rather than later because we know that the communities that don’t have the service are at risk of falling behind.”

Currently, the FCC is updating or fixing the nation’s broadband maps. Earlier this year it launched a Speed Test app and is encouraging Americans to test their internet speeds and share the information back to the commission.

“For too long we have maps that don’t exactly tell us where service is and is not in this country,” Rosenworcel said. “And you know if you have scarce dollars to fix the problems at the federal, state, or local level, you’re only gonna do it right if you have the right information.”


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