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Rural Broadband left in the US dust

Written by John Windhausen, Jr., Executive Director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition

Rural areas have been left in the dust when it comes to staying up to speed in the digital age here in the US. 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 here 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.”

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, points out 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 here in the US 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 a recent SHLB webinar, Schools, Libraries, Health clinics, and other community anchor institutions are important resources when rural communities struggle to get Internet access.

In the US, 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.

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