Tag: "rural"

Posted May 8, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

Earlier this week, Community Broadband Networks Director Christopher Mitchell joined the radio talk show 1A, distributed by NPR, to talk about poor connectivity in rural America and how the Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating existing digital divides. U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger from Virginia and ranch owner Tiya Tonn from Kansas also called into the show.

Listen to the show.

Digging Into the Divide

Christopher and 1A’s other guests explained how rural Americans across the country, from the mountains of Appalachia to the plains of Kansas, struggle with inadequate Internet access. Broadband quality varies greatly, so some households must rely on spotty cell phone hotspots or fast food Wi-Fi networks while neighbors several miles down the road may have access to fiber optic connectivity.

1A logo

The pandemic is heightening the impacts of the rural digital divide on students and workers who now aren’t able to access their usual connectivity stopgaps, such as public Wi-Fi at libraries and schools. Tiya explained how the shaky broadband connection at her family’s ranch forces her to drive into town for routine activities, and her son spoke to the difficulties he experiences trying to attend online classes now that college campuses are closed.

But poor connectivity isn’t only a rural issue — people who lived near Houston and Columbus, Ohio, called into the show to share how they also can’t access high-speed broadband. Christopher added:

Even just three miles outside Chapel Hill, there are stories in North Carolina about people that are stuck on a technology that hasn’t been upgraded since before the kids that are in high school were born.

How to Expand Access

The guests also touched on government efforts to close the digital divide, particularly as Covid-19 highlights the connectivity crisis in rural America. Last week, Democrats in the U.S. House unveiled an updated plan to invest more than $80 billion in rural broadband expansion. Representative...

Read more
Posted May 5, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

A recent case study from the Community Broadband Networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) finds that rural North Dakotans are more likely to have access to fiber connectivity and gigabit-speed Internet than those living in urban areas. This may surprise many of us city dwellers, who are often stuck with large monopoly providers and their expensive, unreliable Internet access.

The case study, How Local Providers Built the Nation’s Best Internet Access in Rural North Dakota, highlights the efforts of 15 local companies and telephone cooperatives who came together to invest in rural North Dakota and build gigabit fiber networks across the state. Their success is traced back to the companies' acquisition of 68 rural telephone exchanges from monpoloy provider US West (now CenturyLink) in the 1990s. The local providers then leveraged federal funds to connect rural residents and businesses with some of the most extensive and future-proof fiber networks in the country.

North Dakota Fiber Coverage

Download the case study, How Local Providers Built the Nation’s Best Internet Access in Rural North Dakota [pdf].

The case study features several maps and graphs that demonstrate North Dakota's widespread, high-quality connectivity, including this map of fiber coverage in the state.

Some key lessons from the case study:

  • When US West, the regional telephone monopoly, didn't believe their rural North Dakota networks would be profitable, the local providers saw an opportunity to acquire US West’s rural territories in the state and to expand their services.
  • More than three quarters of rural North Dakotans have access to fiber broadband today, compared to only 20 percent of rural residents nationally. Over 80 percent of North Dakota's expanse is covered by fiber networks.
  • National telecom monopolies refuse to invest in rural areas even though they receive billions in subsidies, while local co-ops and companies continue to innovate and build better networks for their communities.

...

Read more
Posted May 4, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

Early last year, Mississippi changed state law to allow electric cooperatives to offer Internet access in addition to electrical service. Since then, several co-ops have announced plans to connect member-owners with fiber optic networks. But despite their new legal authority, some cooperatives are deciding against broadband projects, and their members aren’t happy.

The Daily Journal reported last week on one co-op, Pontotoc Electric Power Association (PEPA), that has chosen not to invest in broadband at this time, citing high costs. PEPA's decision faces strong opposition from some of its members as well as a commissioner from the Mississippi Public Service Commission. Critics claim that cooperative leaders did not fully consider all of the possibilities, and they take issue with the board’s choice to hold the vote during a closed meeting without issuing public notice.

“We’re not adversarial but are advocating for letting the owners get back involved,” Jackie Courson, a PEPA member in favor of broadband, told the Daily Journal.

Critics Question Private Board Vote

The PEPA board decided against moving forward with a broadband network during a private meeting on April 2. Members of the cooperative only found out about the vote four days later, during a public board meeting. In that later meeting, the board limited public discussion on every topic, including the broadband vote, to two people with five minutes each.

As justification for their decision to give the broadband project a pass, PEPA leadership cited the high cost of building fiber infrastructure — estimated at up to $48 million for the northern Mississippi co-op. “One study said it would only be financially feasible after 22 years, and then just marginally. The other two said flat out it was not economically feasible,” PEPA General Manager Chuck Howell explained to the Daily Journal.

Regardless of their members’ enthusiasm, the PEPA board argued that the potential cost put the project out of reach for the co-op. “I realize there is a demand for it. I would have loved to do it, but financially it is too much. The money wasn’t there...

Read more
Posted May 1, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

Not only has the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic exposed our nation’s dire lack of medical equipment and protective gear, but it has also shone a light on the inadequacy of our rural broadband networks.

A recent CNN article, “Why rural Americans are having a hard time working from home,” by Harmeet Kaur, explores the many struggles that rural households face now that jobs, schools, and everything else has moved online and their outdated broadband connections can’t keep up.

“We Should Be Embarrassed”

CNN reports that while only 1.4 percent of urban Americans don’t have access to broadband speeds of at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload, more than a quarter of rural households don’t have broadband available to them. And almost three quarters don’t have access to faster upload speeds of 25 Mbps.

These disparate stats are currently on display at parking lots across the country, as families without adequate home connectivity are forced to drive to open Wi-Fi hotspots and sit in their cars while completing assignments for school and work.

The article shared how one teacher in rural Virginia has turned her school’s parking lot into her new office:

Every Sunday since the coronavirus lockdown started, Stephanie Anstey drives 20 minutes from her home in Grottoes, Virginia, to sit in her school's near-empty parking lot and type away on her laptop. Anstey, a middle school history teacher, lives in a valley between two mountains, where the only available home internet option is a satellite connection. Her emails can take 30 seconds to load, only to quit mid-message. She can't even open files on Google Drive, let alone upload lesson modules or get on a Zoom call with colleagues.

“We are the country that created the internet,” Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative, said in the article. “We should be embarrassed that millions of people have to drive to a closed library or a fast food restaurant in order to do their jobs or do their homework.”

High Costs, Slow Speeds

The CNN article points to a number of reasons for the dearth of high-quality Internet access throughout rural America.

Deploying broadband infrastructure is expensive in urban and rural communities, but in sparsely...

Read more
Posted April 23, 2020 by christopher

Last week, Frontier Communications told the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that there are 17,000 census blocks in which it is now offering 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. This means well over 400,000 Americans now live in areas no longer eligible for the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a $20.4 billion program to expand rural broadband. The first phase will auction off up to $16 billion in subsidies later this year.

In the filing, the company also identified census blocks where it believes other providers will deploy broadband access through state-funded programs, making those locations ineligible for the federal funds as well.

Frontier is Flailing

Frontier recently declared bankruptcy, following a history of increasingly unsustainable acquisitions. It also just missed its milestone for the Connect America Fund, which required the company to deploy obsolete 10/1 Mbps service to 80 percent of the funded locations by the end of 2019 in return for more than $1.5 billion in subsidies. Some 774,000 locations should have at least 10/1 Mbps service by the end of 2020 from a company Consumer Reports repeatedly finds to be one of the worst Internet Service Providers in the nation.

Frontier is so bad that it went through repeated outages of 911 in Wisconsin, dealt with state investigation after state investigation (including but in no way limited to Minnesota, Ohio...

Read more
Posted April 21, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

There’s a belief out there that households don’t really want or need more than a basic broadband connection, much less gigabit connectivity. This mistaken impression especially affects rural areas, where observers point out that a resident may have more fingers on their hand than Megabits per second (Mbps) on their current Internet connection, so surely they’ll be satisfied with a bump up to broadband speeds of 25 or 50 Mbps.

However, in our experience at MuniNetworks.org, demand for high-speed connectivity is actually quite robust in rural areas where the infrastructure exists. We’ve heard from rural cooperatives that many of their fiber network subscribers opt for higher speed tiers and that gigabit take rates near 30 percent in some instances. This suggests rural areas are much more likely than more urban areas to opt for tiers above the lowest cost option.

Even if the majority of rural subscribers don’t need the very highest broadband speeds, it’s important to note that the demand is there and will certainly continue to grow. As federal and state governments invest in rural broadband deployment, they must ensure that the networks they’re subsidizing can meet current and future needs.

Co-ops Feed Need for Speed

Roanoke Connect logoBack in January, Telecompetitor reported that Curtis Wynn, CEO of Roanoke Electric Cooperative in North Carolina, shared on a press call that two thirds of the co-op’s broadband subscribers selected a speed tier above the lowest and cheapest option of 50 Mbps. This isn’t because the co-op’s members have extra money to burn. “We’re one of the poorest areas of the nation. We have a lot of low-income individuals who are our members,” Wynn told a reporter in 2019.

Last month, we spoke with representatives from another electric cooperative, Oklahoma Electric Cooperative (OEC), for episode 398 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. They told us that many of their members also choose to subscribe to above-baseline speeds. The co-op only...

Read more
Posted April 20, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

Earlier this month, more than 70 electric cooperatives joined consulting firm Conexon in urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to speed up planned rural broadband funds in response to the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In comments filed with the FCC, Conexon called upon the agency to accelerate phase one of the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) reverse auction, planned for later this year, in order to connect rural communities and bolster local economies affected by the current crisis. Specifically, Conexon suggested that the FCC expedite RDOF applications and subsidies for providers that plan to build gigabit fiber networks, since under the current auction rules, those bidders are essentially guaranteed funding. The filed comments, available in PDF format below, included an open letter signed by dozens of electric co-op leaders who support the proposal.

While the urgency of rural connectivity has been underlined by the nationwide shutdowns intended to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, the need for better rural broadband isn’t new. Conexon stated in its comments, “Whether the current health and economic crisis lasts a few months or a year, funding long-term rural fiber networks is necessary and long overdue.”

Proposed RDOF Process

Unlike those who want to postpone RDOF until the Covid-19 crisis passes or the FCC collects more accurate broadband data, Conexon opposes any further delay of the auction. “If anything, in the current economic climate, the RDOF Phase I auction should be accelerated, not delayed,” the company stated.

FCC logoIn its comments, Conexon proposed a couple measures the FCC could take to expedite the RDOF process for gigabit-tier bidders while allowing the rest of the auction to proceed as planned. Most importantly, the FCC could streamline the application process by combining steps in the process and require faster broadband deployment from winning bidders. Conexon also suggested that the agency could extend funding for gigabit fiber networks even if RDOF is postponed, saying, “In the event the auction is delayed beyond this year, the FCC should fund such applicants at the [auction’s] reserve price.”

...

Read more
Posted April 15, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

Two more electric cooperatives recently announced plans to build Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) networks to connect their rural members in the southeastern United States with high-quality Internet access.

The co-ops, Mississippi County Electric Cooperative (MCEC) in Arkansas and Monroe County Electric Power Association (EPA) in Mississippi, will partner with Conexon to manage network design, buildout, and implementation. Conexon has worked with dozens of rural electric cooperatives across the country to deploy broadband access to better serve their member-owners.

Rural communities in the southeast have long struggled with unreliable, unaffordable connectivity, and the current Covid-19 pandemic is further amplifying the health, education, and economic disparities that result from inequitable Internet access. But rural cooperatives, in the region and beyond, are stepping up to meet their members’ broadband needs.

Arkansas Co-op Continues Through Crisis

Big Lake Wildlife Refuge AR

Late last month in a Conexon press release, MCEC announced that it was launching a new subsidiary, MCEC Fiber, to offer its members Internet access with speeds up to one Gigabit per second symmetrical. With its new 600-mile fiber network, MCEC will join several other electric co-ops in Arkansas, including Ozarks Electric Cooperative and Craigshead Electric Cooperative Corporation, that have invested in broadband infrastructure for their communities.

MCEC President and CEO Brad Harrison said in the release:

We have long seen the need of our members and communities for reliable and fast internet service, given that it has become a necessity in many parts of life . . . This network is important for our community, and Conexon opened our eyes to the fact that not only could we provide the service, but we could offer a gold-plated solution...

Read more
Posted April 9, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

With Covid-19 cases growing across the country, it's more important now than ever that households have access to telehealth services.

For the seventh episode of the "Why NC Broadband Matters" podcast series, we spoke with Dave Kirby, president of the North Carolina Telehealth Network Association, about the role of telehealth in the healthcare system, both during the pandemic and after it ends. "Why NC Broadband Matters" is created in partnership with NC Broadband Matters, a nonprofit organization working to connect communities across North Carolina to high-quality broadband access.

logo-nc-hearts-gigabit.png In his conversation with Christopher, Dave explains the important functions broadband serves in modern healthcare systems, and he describes different telehealth applications, including video visits and connected care devices.

The pair discuss how hospital closures and limited access to healthcare impacts rural North Carolina communities. Dave touches on some of the research into how broadband can connect underserved areas to remote healthcare providers. Unfortunately, many rural communities don't have adequate Internet access, and the lack of connectivity is a barrier to telehealth. Christopher and Dave talk about the challenges to expanding broadband for telehealth in rural areas but also about the potential cost savings of better healthcare access in the state

Before wrapping up the interview, Dave predicts that the current Covid-19 crisis will push more healthcare providers to adopt telehealth, even after the pandemic...

Read more
Posted April 8, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

Last fall, we reported on the large number of community-owned broadband networks among the applicants for the first round of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) ReConnect broadband program, which awards grants and loans to expand rural connectivity.

Since then, the USDA has distributed more than $620 million to 70 providers in 31 states as part of ReConnect round one. Just over half of the awardees are community networks, including rural cooperatives, local governments, community agencies, and a tribal provider. The other ReConnect awardees are locally owned providers. Almost all grant and loan recipients plan to build high-quality fiber networks with the funds.

While the impact will be limited by the relatively modest size of the program and restrictive eligibility requirements, the ReConnect awards will nevertheless lead to improved economic opportunity and quality of life in rural areas. These investments will enable more rural Americans to take advantage of precision agriculture, online education, and telehealth visits — services that are now more important than ever as the nation finds itself in the grips of a pandemic.

Co-ops, Munis Win Big

Approximately 30 rural telephone and electric cooperatives in 16 different states are taking home ReConnect grants and loans from the first round of funding. Co-op awards include a nearly $19 million grant for Alaska-based Cordova Telecom Cooperative, a $28 million grant and loan for Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, and a $2.73 million grant for Emery Telecom for projects in Colorado and Montana.

USDA logo

Several municipal networks are also recipients of ReConnect funding. One of the awardees, Osage Municipal Utilities in Iowa,...

Read more

Pages

Subscribe to rural