The Status and Statistics of Rural Broadband

It has been reported for years that high speed broadband is lacking in the rural areas of our country compared to urban and suburban areas.  People living in rural America do not have to be told they need broadband – they are well aware of the disadvantages they face living with lack of high speed internet. Children’s Children suffer by lack of access to high speed internet for homework or research projects compared to metropolitan students.  Rural business owners are at a significant economic disadvantage without high speed access to the internet for online ordering, credit card processing, online banking, and business marketing. Doctors and Lawyers need the access too.

Betsy Huber, President and Master of the National Grange, who was recently appointed to the FCC Broadband Advisory committee, stated that the Grange has been a longtime advocate for rural broadband and that she now has this awesome responsibility to be a voice for rural America and its people, businesses and farmers. One of the things Ms. Huber will advocate for is that farmers need internet services not only in the home and the barn, but on the tractor in the field.

Let’s look at some rural versus urban statistics.  In rural America only 55% of residents and businesses have access to broadband with speeds of 25 MBPS or greater, while in the cities, 94% availability is the norm.  The 55% access percentage does increase to 64% in rural areas with 10MBPS speed availability; however, the FCC does not accept speeds that slow as being classified as ‘high speed internet.’

Competition improves choice. Only 19% of rural areas have a choice of broadband providers, while 60% of the rest of the country has choice. Put another way, 36% of rural Americans lack any access to broadband, even at slower speeds, but in the urban and suburban areas only 4% lack access. That is 23 million people in rural areas with no access to high speed internet service there is a bigger problem. Where there is access to broadband, 100,000,000 residents do not subscribe, even though it is available to them.  For some the reason is cost, for some they do not see the need for the service, and, for many older citizens, they do not even own a computer.

So why is broadband coverage so low in rural America? Broadband service is provided, with very few exceptions, by the private sector. For those providers, such as Comcast or Fair Point, where to provide high speed internet access is a business decision. The return on investment of stringing fiber optic cable for limited connectivity in remote areas is a poor business choice. It costs roughly the same amount to string a cable in the city and potentially attach one thousand subscribers as it does to string cable in rural locations and potentially attract six subscribers. On average, it costs$40,000 a mile to string cable.

It should be noted that today’s farmers rely more and more on access to high speed broadband. They need to be competitive and efficient and have access to data needed to operate their business. In some agricultural areas, farmers are starting collectives to string their own lines from the provider’s connection point.  It is not uncommon for people on the outskirts of rural communities with no access to broadband to go to the local library   to login to the internet at just to read their email.

What is the solution? The Federal Communications Commission, in its latest budget, is providing $2 Billion over 10 years for subsidies to providers to encourage them to string lines in rural areas and make connections.   In addition to these subsidies, there are currently several bills before Congress dealing with broadband accessibility, as outlined By Jessica Mulholland and Eyragon Eidam in the August 6 edition of ‘Government Technology:

‘The bipartisan Advancing Innovation and Reinvigorating Widespread Access to Viable Electromagnetic Spectrum (AIRWAVES) bill, was introduced by Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H. The legislation aims to drive down wireless costs by opening commercially licensed and unlicensed spectrum space, while hopefully bettering broadband access in rural areas.   There is also

In a similar spirit, the U.S. House’s Rural Reasonable and Comparable Wireless Access Act of 2017 would direct the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to develop a national standard for “reasonably comparable” broadband services in rural and urban areas. Since the bill’s introduction in mid-June, however, it has not progressed in the House.

Also in mid-June, Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., introduced legislation that would provide tax incentives for companies willing to build out rural broadband services. The so-called Gigabit Opportunity Act would effectively allow companies to front load the expensing of investments in rural networks within applicable zones. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai lauded the bill, which has not progressed since its June 16introduction.

And in March, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., introduced legislation that would streamline broadband permitting in existing highway rights-of-way for broadband infrastructure projects. Called the Highway Rights-of-Way Permitting Efficiency Act of 2017, the bill seeks to avoid duplicative federal permitting and regulations and other issues that cause project delays and cost-overruns.

And states in the CSG-ERC region are taking measures to expand broadband in their states as well.

On June 14, the Maine House passed Legislative Document 1399, which would create the nonprofit Maine Broadband Initiative. The goal of the non-profit would be to spur high-speed broadband in unserved and underserved parts of the state. The broadband initiative would replace the ConnectME Authority with the new Maine Broadband Initiative. On June 15, the Senate placed the bill on the Special Appropriations Table, which is tasked with determining how to fund the bill.

In late May, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed the bipartisan Senate Bill 717, which establishes the Task Force on Rural Internet, Broadband, Wireless and Cellular Service as a means of studying and outlining recommendations to further the technology in underserved, rural areas.

The goal of New Hampshire House Bill 238 is to establish a committee to study broadband access, one of the first steps in working toward bringing access to rural residents. The bill was introduced in New Hampshire in December 2016, but it didn’t pass the House until February 2017 and then passed the Senate on April 27.  New Hampshire currently has SB 170 that would set up a public / private partnership to leverage investment. That bill has passed the appropriate Senate Committee and will go to the full Senate in January. It is expected to pass the Senate, but will have more resistance in the NH House

New York’s Assembly Bill 4869 aims to create a tax credit for providers willing to deploy broadband services to rural or underserved homes and businesses. The bill, aptly named the Credit for Rural Broadband Act of 2017, was both introduced and referred to the Senate Governmental Operations Committee Feb. 3, and has not showed any signs of moving forward’

Legislatures, both federal and state, will need to be willing to subsidize rural broad banding in order for providers to move forward with build out.

The CSG-ERC Rural & Agricultural Affairs Committee staff will continue to monitor the rural broadband situation at the state level and give you updates as they occur.