By Mark Wolf
Phoenix—For city folk, the choice is Netflix or Amazon, Hulu or Disney, YouTube or AppleTV.
For rural dwellers, too often it's "Is this thing ever going to load?"
Precise estimates vary, but a 2018 FCC report found approximately 14 million rural Americans and 1.2 million Americans living on tribal lands lack mobile broadband at speeds of 10 Mbps/3 Mbps (download/upload), which many consider the bare minimum to be considered broadband.
In rural areas, 68.6% of Americans have access to both fixed and mobile broadband. In urban areas, it's nearly 98%.
Broadband is crucial to rural citizens for education, health care, agricultural information and all the entertainment and news opportunities urban dwellers take for granted, a panel of broadband deployment experts told attendees during an NCSL Capitol Forum session on "Speeding Up Efforts to Deploy Rural Broadband."
Boosting rural broadband is a complicated patchwork of regulation, incentives, federal and state cooperation and mapping.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which was involved in delivering electricity in the early 20th century, has a $600 million broadband-focused pilot program called ReConnect that provides grants and loans for rural broadband projects.
Broadband networks are both similar to and different from telephone networks, said Jay Schwarz, vice president of public policy for Comcast.
Like electricity or roads, broadband is an irreversible investment. "It's put into the ground, put up on poles and you can't go in and repurpose it," he said. "It's not like a warehouse a company might buy. That will affect the incentives. Density really matters. There are definitely going to be areas where you need subsidies to connect. Private capital is not going to able to find a business model to connect to those."
Unlike electricity or telephone networks, broadband must be rapidly upgraded, Schwarz added.
Accurate mapping is crucial to determine who does and doesn't have broadband, said Clay Purvis, director of telecommunications at the Vermont Department of Public Service.
Stimulus funding in 2009 provided mapping in Vermont, but, Purvis said, "it was impossible to determine how many previously underserved buildings have broadband because it was rolled out in an uncoordinated way. Without good mapping, you risk subsidizing places where the market is functioning normally."
The FCC mapped Vermont using census blocks but Vermont has mapped on a location basis, looking at individual buildings. Using census blocks, Purvis said, eliminates counting empty buildings. The state used enhanced 911 data to map, as well as state broadband maps on three different speed tiers.
Georgia, which has one of the nation's highest concentrations of rural electrical cooperatives, allows rural co-ops to operate in broadband.
"It allows us to engage in partnerships with cable, telephone or go into business ourselves," said Jason Bragg, vice president of government affairs for the Georgia Electric Membership Corp., the statewide trade association for rural electric cooperatives. He said co-ops are not allowed to cross-subsidize electricity with broadband, "but we're finding some ways to work around that. We don't see ourselves as the savior of rural broadband but we do want to be a part of it."
Mark Wolf is editor of the NCSL Blog.