Thereís a reason 100 million people in the U.S. still donít have broadband service in their homes. Itís not simply because the economics donít initially support development of broadband in rural, tribal and underserved markets. And itís not because consumers donít 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 whatís 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 todayís market, the fact is that if you live in a sparsely populated area you simply arenít 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 ďdigital divideĒ 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.
Itís 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.
Letís 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. Thatís 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. Itís simply a matter of communities seeking to control their broadband options through the means that best suit them. The FCCís USF exists to help entities develop broadband services in the most rural markets by filling funding gaps necessary to advanced wireless infrastructure.
Itís 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.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.