Feb 24 2022

The Push to Expand Rural Broadband Unfolds Across State Government

Armed with newly available federal funds, state agencies take varying approaches to close the digital divide for rural residents.

More than 42 million Americans lack broadband access, including many in rural communities, according to research group BroadbandNow, which provides independent data on broadband access and policy.

Now, states have access to significant federal funding to improve the situation. The American Rescue Plan Act earmarked $350 billion for a variety of services for state and local agencies, including expanded broadband access.

At the same time, the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act put another $65 billion in broadband funding on the table, $42 billion of which will be in the form of grants to states. If a state fails to apply, a local government may apply on its behalf.

This broadband program is aimed in large part at expanding rural broadband access. It will be managed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and will offer grants for:

  • Broadband deployment in unserved and underserved communities
  • Broadband data, maps and plans
  • Internet, Wi-Fi infrastructure or low-cost broadband for multifamily residential buildings
  • Other items deemed necessary by NTIA

What Is the State of Rural Internet Access?

According to the Federal Communications Commission’s latest broadband deployment report, from January 2021, 82.7 percent of those in rural areas had access to broadband at speeds of 25 megabits per second for download/3mbps for upload, compared 98.8 percent of those in urban areas.

Why the shortfall? According to Anna Read, senior officer of the Broadband Access Initiative at Pew Charitable Trusts, it’s due to density.

“Rural areas have fewer customers spread out over larger geographic areas, which can make it difficult and costly to deploy broadband infrastructure,” she says.

Others agree that geography lies at the heart of the broadband issue.

“Low density and large physical distances make it expensive to roll out fiber and cable,” says Rahul Gupta, managing director and the North America lead for Accenture’s cities, transport and infrastructure public service practice. “That combination creates a funding challenge.

“Most of our capabilities are dedicated to urban areas, where the internet service providers, the telecommunications companies and infrastructure companies have a business model. When you get into this very dispersed, low-density, large-distance situation, it costs a lot of money and it’s not the way businesses are set up to make a profit.”

All this has profound practical implications for people who live in rural communities.

“Without broadband, you might see lower property values, decreased job and population growth, lower rates of business formation, higher unemployment rates. These are all part and parcel of a geographic inability to access the internet,” says Ian Greenblatt, managing director of J.D. Power’s technology, media and telecommunications intelligence business unit.

DIVE DEEPER: How can state CIOs encourage broadband expansion?

Options for Expanding Broadband Internet for Rural Areas

In terms of technology, states have a number of avenues open to them. While there are a variety of available ways to get broadband into rural communities, no one path represents a panacea.

“You could say, ‘Let’s roll fiber everywhere,’” says Greenblatt. “But that’s mind-bogglingly expensive and will consume the dollars allotted very quickly. It’s not really cost-effective.”

Satellites represent another possible avenue.

Ian Greenblatt, Managing Director, Technology, Media and Telecommunications Intelligence Business Unit, J.D. Power
Without broadband, you might see lower property values, decreased job and population growth, lower rates of business formation, higher unemployment rates. These are all part and parcel of a geographic inability to access the internet.”

Ian Greenblatt Managing Director, Technology, Media and Telecommunications Intelligence Business Unit, J.D. Power

“Instead of running fiber, which could be between $25,000 and $50,000 per mile, you can just subsidize an individual’s connection through satellites,” Gupta says.

Traditional satellite efforts have often come up short, with slow speeds and high latency impeding the user experience.

Now there’s an emerging alternative on the horizon with Starlink, a division of Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Starlink is a network, or “constellation,” of nearly 2,000 satellites in low orbit above the earth.

“Then it’s a mesh, as opposed to one bird that you point the dish to,” Greenblatt says. “They’re also much closer to the planet, which helps address latency somewhat.”

RELATED: How is New York planning to expand broadband access?

For many states, fixed wireless deployments offer another promising option.

“Fixed wireless access is an exciting, reasonably priced alternative,” Greenblatt says. “It frequently depends on fiber connectivity to the edge for backhaul and can often use existing antennas.

“It’s not a gargantuan lift, except maybe in areas that are unserved by wireless networks, where cell towers have to be deployed. For the states, building and maintaining the infrastructure should be a private-public partnership to speed and maintain deployment.”

Gupta also sees promise in fixed wireless.

“If we get to a point where all of the telecommunications companies have fielded antennas and they are providing long-range 5G, that’s another way to do it,” he says.

At this point, experts suggest the most important thing states can do on the tech front is to weigh their options carefully.

“You need to come up with a strategy and understand your options based on what you understand to be the problem,” Gupta says.

Going forward, provider partners will ask, “‘Is there a business case for me? Is there a way for me to recover my capital cost? Is there a way for me to make a profit?’” Gupta says. “The strategy comes first, along with understanding your business. Then, within that business model is an understanding of your technology, since those technologies will all have different price points.”

How Are Governments Expanding Rural Broadband Access?

Nationwide, states are taking a variety of steps to close the rural broadband gap.

Maine’s strategy is based on community planning, says ConnectMaine Authority Executive Director Peggy Schaffer.

This includes startup grants to establish broadband committees to assess current availability and need. Follow-up grants support community efforts through feasibility studies and expanded community engagement. The state is also engaged in crowdsourcing efforts to identify need and offer technical assistance to communities looking to expand broadband access.

82.7%

"Fourteenth Broadband Deployment Report," FCC, Jan. 19, 2021

Source: The percentage of Americans in rural areas with access to 25 Mbps broadband

“We also, of course, do infrastructure grants,” Schaffer says. In the current round of funding, applicants use the state’s broadband intelligence platform to identify how many locations are unserved or underserved. “This means all the applications will be using the same data, and we can judge applications on an apples-to-apples comparison.”

Meanwhile, across the country, the Utah Broadband Center “works as a liaison to rural communities by connecting them with rural broadband internet service providers,” says Director Rebecca Dilg.

EXPLORE: How are some cities closing the last-mile gap on broadband?

“Oftentimes, just having the conversation opens up possible opportunities for collaboration or awareness of need,” she says. “Many of the rural broadband providers participate in submitting their coverage areas and information for our broadband availability map. From the map, we can identify areas of need. We are excited to be launching our own speed test campaign at speedtest.utah.gov to provide an added layer of data and broadband verification to our maps.”

The Utah Broadband Center launched the first state grant program for last-mile connectivity in 2021, with $10 million prioritized for rural, unserved households and businesses, she says.

In Maryland, “we have developed strong partnerships with our counties and ISPs and developed two funding programs to address the unserved rural areas of the state,” says Kenrick Gordon, director of the Office of Statewide Broadband.

The state’s Neighborhood Connect Broadband Funding Program provides funding to extend nearby existing broadband networks into pockets of unserved homes, while the Connect Maryland Network Infrastructure Grant Program provides funding to construct entirely new networks to serve larger unserved areas.

Montana recently launched its Connect MT program. “This release included the state’s interactive coverage map, which presents address-level data on broadband availability statewide and depicts areas where the FCC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have awarded funds, to prevent overbuild,” says Misty Ann Giles, director of the Montana Department of Administration. “We also opened the portal to begin accepting applications for a total of $266 million to expand broadband access statewide to our most underserved and unserved communities.”

DIVE DEEPER: How has North Carolina charted its broadband expansion?

How Will the Infrastructure Law Expand Rural Broadband?

Federal funding promises to reshape the way states approach the rural broadband question. The American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act opportunities “provided an unprecedented amount of funding to support broadband deployment, and most of this money will flow through states,” Read says.

In Utah, the influx of funding will support “last-mile connection to unserved rural areas as well as remaining unserved urban areas,” Dilg says.

It will help fund an ongoing expansion of existing broadband networks by the Transportation Department. It also will enable the Utah Education and Telehealth Network to expand its work with broadband internet service providers to connect anchor institutions in the state, such as schools, hospitals, healthcare facilities and libraries.

“The providers can then likewise tap into this middle mile and expand it to rural households in the community,” Dilg says.

In Maryland, the infrastructure bill “will provide funding for Maryland to continue its efforts to ensure that every home has access to broadband,” Gordon says.

Much of this activity is already underway. “States have already begun allocating ARPA funding with a focus on infrastructure deployment and planning for use of the use of broadband funds available through the IIJA,” Read says.

aerogondo/Getty Images

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