The Billion Dollar Broadband Problem

Dec 1, 2020

Rural broadband, or lack thereof, is getting airwaves again in Washington D.C.

Notable gaps of strong broadband signals in rural areas have been illuminated once more by COVID-19. From families lacking high-speed internet for virtual schools to precision agriculture tools being hampered by poor data transfer abilities, rural areas need the bandwidth help.

The backstory: The Federal Communications Commission [FCC] gauges that it will take $80 billion to connect underserved rural areas via fiber broadband.

That’s not pocket change.

To date, available funds sit at $29 billion between individual states, the FCC, and the USDA. But all that money has yet to be invested and policy leaders are searching for ways to shave off a fraction of the cost via electric cooperatives and alternative technologies like satellites.

And the FCC just launched phase one of its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to kickstart more progress. The auction-style program will provide $20 billion to internet companies who build out rural networks over the next 10 years.

The goal will be to connect 10 million Americans without internet access or who are on dial-up-like speeds.

But it’s not perfect. As Verizon, US Cellular, and others duke it out for the funds, pundits point out the program’s shortcomings.

One big concern: The vastly overstated coverage maps many of these for-profit telecommunications companies tout. To avoid ‘overbuilding,’ they will bypass areas they claim to have service when in reality, the service may be poor at best.

Looking ahead: Many rural and farm groups are hoping that President-Elect Joe Biden can deliver on his campaign promise of good internet service for all Americans. His $20 billion allocation for rural broadband is a good first step to an ‘economic equalizer.’ But while a large sum, it’s going to take more for all Americans to get a full signal.