February 25, 2019

Stronger Broadband Ahead

 |  By: Mike Opperman

When you’re running a business all you want is good cell coverage and a strong internet signal. If you’re in rural America, both of those can be hard to come by. That could change in the future. 

The future of rural connectivity is promising because two factors have aligned to speed the development of broadband networks in rural America: the government has placed a priority on developing those networks, and private industry realizes a positive business case to build broadband infrastructure. 

“Reliable broadband is critical for nearly every aspect of life, from education to health care to agriculture and beyond,” says Sonny Perdue U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. “By working across the federal government and by harnessing public-private partnerships as USDA has done for decades, we are doing all we can to bring reliable, affordable broadband to homes, farms, ranches, schools, and healthcare sites throughout rural America.”

Government support is on the way.  The 2018 farm bill provides funding to hurry rural high-speed broadband development. The bill expands loan and grant programs, strengthens inter-agency cooperation and prioritizes projects that brings access to underserved areas.

Last winter, USDA also began a pilot program that feeds $600 million in grants and loans to help build broadband capacity in sparsely-populated areas. Funding for the program comes from the omnibus spending program passed in March 2018 and provides non-profit and for-profit organizations, including local governments, the opportunity to receive funds for infrastructure development and improvement. In addition, USDA will provide a 25% matching grant, a 2% low interest loan or a combination of both. A proposed rule is expected to be released in May, with three application periods between April and June and funding beginning in the summer through late 2019. 

Speed is the key, as funded projects must create upload speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and download speeds of 3 mbps. According to the Federal Communications Commission 2018 Broadband Deployment Report, 92.3% of all Americans had access to broadband at those speeds. However, only 68.6% have that access in rural areas. The report states that “more than 24 million Americans still lack fixed terrestrial broadband” at those speeds, and “rural and tribal areas continue to lag behind urban areas in mobile broadband deployment.”

Envisioning a new broadband improvement.  In April 2017 President Trump signed an Executive Order creating the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity, part of which included creation of the American Broadband Initiative. The Initiative outlines a vision for how the government can improve broadband access through better coordination across federal agencies as well as increasing private-sector investment. In addition to the $600 million pilot program,  the initiative released a report in February 2019 outlining recommendations in three key areas: streamlining federal permitting processes, leveraging federal assets to lower cost of broadband buildouts and maximizing the impact of federal funding. 

  • More towers. The Department of the Interior (DOI) mapped more than 7,000 new tower locations primarily in rural areas. These towers will be available to service providers seeking to locate equipment on Federal property as they expand networks.
  • More assets. In addition to the DOI towers, the General Services Administration will identify additional Federal assets that can be used by service providers to expand into rural markets, ideally as a cost-saving opportunity. 
  • Streamlined permitting. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration will publish information on current project workflows, providing a single location for information on Federal permitting of broadband infrastructure. In addition, the GSA will streamline the permitting process to “be more responsive to stakeholder needs.”

Private industry investment is required.  The steps taken by the Federal Government to improve broadband access are admirable, but they aren’t enough.

“This digital divide continues to hold rural America back in nearly all aspects of everyday life: healthcare, education, business investment and general economic development, farm income, civic engagement and even property values,” says Bill Laduca, sector vice president, electric distribution with CoBank. 

The CoBank report cites a recent study conducted by Purdue University which estimated that the State of Indiana would realize a net benefit of $12 billion if rural broadband investments were made statewide. 

Over the past few years, electric distribution cooperatives have been building fiber networks as a way to service underserved markets for the benefit of their own operations and their customers. Many of the electric cooperatives have entered into the broadband space through partnerships with other cooperatives. 

Regardless of how the broadband infrastructure is built, many residents of rural America are missing out on technology their urban neighbors enjoy. 


How well do you have access to rural broadband? Access this map to find out.