An op-ed written by Katie Kienbaum, Research Associate at ILSR, was published in The Intelligencer. Katie addresses the inadequacy of satellite Internet access and why federal funding should go to real broadband solutions. Find the full piece below:
The digital divide is about to get much larger in rural Pennsylvania, and the federal government is bankrolling it.
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission, FCC, held a reverse auction that distributed approximately $1.5 billion to Internet access providers to connect underserved rural communities across the country. While this was an important step toward improving Internet access in many communities, in others it was a perverse step backwards — especially in Pennsylvania.
Rural communities desperately need better broadband to survive in the digital future. But instead of investing in high-quality networks that will allow rural families, farms and businesses to thrive, the FCC is burning millions on slow, unreliable satellite connectivity in Pennsylvania and 19 other states.
Nationally, the FCC awarded satellite company Viasat more than $120 million — including about $20 million for Pennsylvania — to provide internet access that most wouldn’t even consider broadband. Compared to other technologies, satellite has slower speeds, higher latency, much lower data caps and less reliability, all at higher prices. This low-quality connectivity makes it difficult to complete everyday tasks, like finding employment, accessing health care and finishing schoolwork.
It’s also all but impossible to run a business on satellite Internet access. As a result, most people resort to satellite internet access only when there are no other options available. Because of the technical limitations of satellite, it’s questionable whether Viasat will even be able to meet the modest quality standards established by the FCC.
It wasn’t inevitable that these communities got stuck with subsidized satellite. In the same auction, the FCC awarded $225 million to electric cooperatives, which will leverage the federal funding to deploy mostly gigabit-speed fiber, the fastest and most reliable broadband technology, in similarly rural areas.
In north central Pennsylvania, Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative will receive around $32 million in federal funding to connect its members with some of the fastest internet access in the U.S. Drive just a few miles down the road, and there are places where the FCC is subsidizing Viasat to deliver connectivity that’s already unable to meet families’ needs today and will never come close to fiber’s speed or reliability.
These communities are even worse off than it appears, because subsidizing satellite will stymie the growth of better broadband networks. In the places where Viasat won subsidies, the FCC is unlikely to commit further funding for rural connectivity for at least another decade, and the subsidies also make these areas ineligible for other federal broadband programs, like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program.
While satellite Internet access may be a slight improvement in some rural areas, it comes at the cost of indefinitely delaying the expansion of true high-speed broadband. For instance, because Viasat won in adjacent areas, cooperatives like Tri-County cannot seek broadband subsidies from the ReConnect program to extend their modern, high-speed networks to their neighbors.
Government programs are not working when “winning” an auction results in less local investment. By gifting millions to Viasat, the FCC is designating certain communities as satellite slums, creating another, possibly permanent digital divide within rural Pennsylvania. Dooming these areas to satellite connectivity arbitrarily shuts them out of the future economy while government-funded, high-speed broadband enables other rural areas to flourish.
Satellite Internet access isn’t good enough today and it won’t be good enough tomorrow — rural Pennsylvania deserves better.
Katie Kienbaum is with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit advocate for sustainable community development, which includes the creation of broadband networks.