There’s a reason 100 million people in the U.S. still don’t have broadband service in their homes. It’s not simply because the economics don’t initially support development of broadband in rural, tribal and underserved markets. And it’s not because consumers don’t want it. Rather, studies suggest that the low rates of broadband adoption can be attributed to localized cultural and educational gaps, as well as a lack of digital literacy.
In many instances it will not be the large carriers that are able to address these issues, which predominantly affect low-income, rural and elderly users. If communities want to increase adoption, broadband needs to be homegrown, and local broadband advocates need to understand what’s missing in order to fill this telecommunications gap. Members of Congress can advance this development simply by understanding why broadband is important to their states and districts, and how communities can use federal tools like the Universal Service Fund to build data networks in unserved and underserved markets.
In today’s market, the fact is that if you live in a sparsely populated area you simply aren’t going to see Sprint, Verizon, AT&T or Clearwire knocking on your door offering you wired or wireless Internet or broadband data services. The rural “digital divide” is well-documented, and while urban centers often have several broadband providers and technology solutions to choose from, there is a clear gap in services when it comes to our less dense markets.
It’s up to community leaders or outside broadband advocates and vendors to help underserved communities understand what infrastructure is needed and who can provide these services.
Let’s stick with the basics: rural communities that lack broadband options, especially high-speed mobile data (defined loosely as greater than 1 MHz bandwidth and data rates greater than 1.5 Megabits per second), greatly suffer in terms of their ability to provide increasingly basic, data-enabled services. Schools and students are not able to rapidly access information and research from all over the world.
Rural physicians and nurse practitioners working in remote clinics cannot seek telehealth consultations from specialty physicians. Perhaps most strikingly, the ability for first responders to gain access to timely information about approaching certain types of emergencies is greatly compromised. That’s not including what a community can do with an energy Smart Grid and other data-based services.
The funding tools for building rural and tribal broadband already exist. It’s simply a matter of communities seeking to control their broadband options through the means that best suit them. The FCC’s USF exists to help entities develop broadband services in the most rural markets by filling funding gaps necessary to advanced wireless infrastructure.
It’s up to members of Congress working with local officials and other community leaders to develop a plan for maximizing the use of such funds to increase the availability and adoption of technologies that can greatly benefit rural Americans. Combined with continued outreach and education, the establishment of a local entity to control licensed spectrum and to pursue USF grants to build infrastructure is a winning approach to creating a true community network.
For those small communities without broadband expertise, outside consultants can be effective in rapidly increasing the expertise needed to develop these regional corporations and to pursue USF grant funds. Once the broadband corporation is formed, it can be managed locally or outsourced or run through a hybrid approach.
Indian country and rural areas nationally can open up many new areas of development and promote education and safety with access to broadband. From traditionally underserved tribal lands to those areas that have simply been left behind by the major providers, mobile broadband is an economic and social game-changer. Broadband has become an essential part of both urban and rural infrastructure — as critical as water, sewer and energy infrastructure.
Small businesses looking to establish in a rural area still want to sell their goods and services nationally. Businesses large and small, from manufacturers to sole practitioners, rely on high-speed Internet to compete in the global marketplace. The necessary telecommunications infrastructure is essential to drawing businesses to rural areas as well as to retain growing entities that must have broadband to expand.
If you’re in a remote area, don’t hold your breath waiting for a big broadband vendor to come to you. Congress has already created the tools in conjunction with the FCC to promote data coverage, but individual senators and representatives can make a difference by helping their local communities understand how to use these tools. Make a plan and build your way to the current state and future of telecommunications.
Andrew Garfinkel is a principal at Aronnax Public Strategies LLC. V. Noah Campbell is managing member, Radio Spectrum Group LLC.