Why High-Speed Internet is So Slow to Reach Rural America

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The internet has failed so far to make the world a better or more equal place, and in fact, it’s widened the inequalities between people who are already well-off and those who are less privileged. (That’s why Google, for instance, is connecting residents of public housing properties with gigabit internet service.) But a recent report has shed light on the reasons why rural Americans, by and large, don’t have access to the high-speed internet services that are largely ubiquitous in the communities inhabited by their urban counterparts.

Susan Crawford, the co-author of a report from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, reports for Backchannel that in Western Massachusetts, for instance, tens of thousands of residents are “forced to rely on satellite or awful DSL connections.” Dozens of small towns in the region have been working for years to form a cooperative “in an effort to take advantage of economies of scale — and to ensure their homes and business have future-proof, 21st century fiber connections.” The towns are willing to pay for most of the cost for such internet access, but Crawford reports that these towns have encountered indifference at the state level, where they need help to “get the fiber job done.”

The previous state administrators seemed on board with the project, but a governor who took office in January 2015 “seems to be looking for short-term, non-fiber solutions that don’t involve any form of cooperative municipal ownership.” In 2009, Massachusetts began building a 1,200-mile “middle-mile” fiber network to connect schools, libraries, and government buildings in many western Massachusetts towns. But for the “last-mile” connectivity to homes and businesses, towns were left on their own.

They responded by forming a cooperative called WiredWest, a cooperative of the same kind that’s operated telecommunication businesses in rural areas for decades. By acting as a cooperative, the towns would be able to buy equipment in bulk, and lower costs, and ensure that the primary incentive of their ISP would be to provide ubiquitous, high-quality service. WiredWest developed a business plan, lined up its funding, and collected pre-subscription deposits from more than 7,000 businesses and homeowners. The funding from the towns would cover two-thirds of the cost of last-mile networks, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts authorized $50 million in state spending to cover the rest.

But when a new governor assumed leadership, communications between WiredWest and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute — the state agency for which spending had been authorized — became strained. MBI issued statements advocating for single-town networks, and consultants hired by the agency said that WiredWest’s business model was flawed, while those hired by WiredWest said that the model was conservative and appropriate. The administration put the brakes on the funding, and Crawford reports that the “whole situation is a tragic political mess,” one that makes victims of “the people whose day-to-day lives (and property values) are blighted by the absence of world-class connectivity in their homes and businesses.”

Unfortunately, western Massachusetts isn’t alone in going without modern-day internet access. According to the 2016 Broadband Progress Report, the FCC found that as of 2014, 39% of the U.S.’s rural population didn’t even have the option of calling a cable or phone company to provide their homes with broadband service. It might not sound like it, but that’s an improvement over previous years, since the proportion was 55% in 2012. Further, 41% of Americans living on Tribal lands lacked access to broadband, 68% living on rural Tribal lands lacked access, 66% living in U.S. territories lacked access, and 98% living in rural territorial areas lacked access.

The deep digital divide between residents of urban and rural residents has long been a very wide digital divide. Only 4% of Americans in densely-populated, urban areas lack access to broadband, and the nationwide average shows that 90% of Americans can access “acceptable” landline internet service. A major problem with providing high-speed internet to rural America is the necessary infrastructure.

Many rural areas are served by old, copper-line networks that telecom companies are accused of neglecting. Crawford notes that copper is more expensive to maintain than fiber, isn’t future-proof, and can’t carry high-capacity communications over long distances. So when states like Massachusetts consider implementing copper-line networks as short-term solutions, they’re neglecting to think about the long-term value of the investments they’re proposing. Another lesson that states should learn from the way things have played out in western Massachusetts? States should let the credit markets decide whether cooperatives like WiredWest are viable so long as their plans don’t seem financially imprudent.

There are no easy solutions for the many towns and regions that either lag behind in Internet connectivity, or lack it altogether. But for Americans living in rural communities and tribal lands, the digital divide is wide and increasingly difficult to remedy. The cost of building the infrastructure is high, the political battles uphill, and the usage of public funding is necessary. But it’s telling that the many Americans complaining about Twitter outages or annoyed by Facebook’s algorithm changes likely can’t even imagine life without the internet — and wouldn’t know what to do if they suddenly found themselves in a house or community with no high-speed internet access and no clear way to get it.

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