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Perspective

Communications Are Critical to Bridging the Digital Divide

Communications Are Critical to Bridging the Digital Divide

Author: Paul Pishal, is a Sales Director for Black & Veatch’s telecom business.

There is no doubt that advanced communication networks are changing how we interact with data, technology and one another. New levels of connectivity are giving us the ability to create, share and analyze information, creating layers of input and insight that deepen our experiences, making them richer, more tangible and more valuable than ever before. This has never been more apparent than during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is driving entire communities to move their lives online, from classes to doctor appointments to the 9-5 workday.

This connectivity has become the hallmark of how most of us operate in today’s rapidly evolving world, and it’s driving communities, industries and businesses across the U.S. to accelerate their shift towards the digital future. But although digital connectivity seems ubiquitous in today’s advanced world, not all of us are on the same playing field. There are still many rural communities in the U.S. without reliable broadband networks and high-speed internet access, rendering entire communities in digital darkness, and impacting the economy, healthcare and education.

Time to Solve the Digital Divide

While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates that nearly 30 million Americans are without access to wired or fixed wireless broadband, a BroadbandNow study pegs that number closer to 42 million Americans.

The issue is particularly pronounced in rural areas, which lack the infrastructure to support high-speed internet, which the FCC defines as 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload. The FCC reports that 65 percent of rural Americans have access to high-speed internet service, compared to 97 percent of those who live in urban areas.

Rural Broadband – 8 Actions to Ensure Fiber Deployment Success

This eBook discusses the rural digital divide, how broadband transforms rural communities, and why co-ops are ideal leaders of fiber deployment. Finally, as experts in advanced communications infrastructure, Black & Veatch outlines eight actions that co-ops can take to remove hurdles, accelerate schedules, garner public interest and acceptance, and minimize costs of fiber deployment.

Connectivity Drives the Economy

This disparity is concerning for many reasons, including its negative impact on the economy. There has been a global shift to the digital economy, as connectivity enables remote working opportunities, the gig economy and continuing education, while giving local businesses an online presence, enabling them to expand their client base.

A lack of connectivity in rural and underserved areas can seriously impact the local economy, and is a likely contributor to generational departure, aka “brain drain,” which describes the exodus of talented high school graduates, most usually to metro or urban areas, as they pursue better education and employment opportunities. According to the Pew Research Center, rural communities have lost a substantial number of “prime-age workers,” i.e., those 25 to 54 years old, between 2000 and 2016. According to the data, urban and suburban communities saw a 12-percent and four-percent increase in prime-age employment, respectively, while rural communities saw an 11-percent decrease, reflecting the depletion of talented human capital.

A lack of digitalization can also stunt local economic sectors, such as agriculture. In a 2019 paper, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) draws a direct correlation between rural broadband infrastructure and next-gen “precision agriculture” technologies. Precision agriculture, or precision ag, relies on technology to increase crop yields and profitability, making agriculture more sustainable and increasing food availability. For example, installing GPS on tractors can help farmers plant crops more efficiently, or using lasers to level fields can help reduce effluent runoff.

The USDA states that while some precision ag technologies require high-speed internet connectivity today to operate, “as technology advances and the volumes of data to manage agriculture production grow, higher speeds will likely be necessary,” making it even more important to build that digital foundation today, to enable tomorrow’s needs.

Historically speaking, broadband providers have simply not had the economic incentive to deploy advanced communications networks in rural communities. But the FCC recognizes that if left unaddressed, the digital divide will only compound, aggravating these issues and delaying the digital evolution even further even as the rest of the country continues to shift to a digital society.

Delivering Healthcare to Remote Areas

Aside from bolstering the economy, advanced communications networks are critical to enabling digital services such as telehealth in rural and underserved communities, which are in desperate need of healthcare support.

The National Rural Health Association reports that the obstacles faced by health care providers and patients in rural areas are vastly different than those in urban areas – economic factors, cultural and social differences, educational shortcomings, lack of recognition by legislators and the isolation of living in remote areas come together to create health care disparities for rural Americans.

Compounding this issue is a prevailing shortage of physicians and medical specialties in rural America. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), 20 percent of the U.S. population—more than 50 million people—live in rural areas, but only 9 percent of the nation’s physicians practice there.

By connecting rural providers and their patients to services at distant sites, telehealth helps overcome these barriers, enabling patients who live in rural or isolated communities to receive the care they need, in their communities.

Telehealth relies on advanced communication networks and digital technologies such as computers and mobile devices to connect patients with remote health care services for virtual appointments with a doctor or nurse; remote monitoring with a health care team; virtual consultations that link primary care doctors with specialists; access to electronic personal health record systems; and personal health apps that help patients track and organize their medical information. Having high-speed broadband in play to enable these services will fill in the healthcare gaps of rural communities.

Education is Paramount

Lastly, advanced communications networks are a critical part of enabling future generations for success, particularly when it comes to education. Lack of connectivity in rural communities leads to the “homework gap” where school-age children cannot complete schoolwork online – a critical part of life while in-person learning is shuttered due to COVID-19.

COVID-19 is also exacerbating the digital divide for undergraduate and graduate students who have left their rural home communities to attend colleges and universities. Without connectivity, these students will find themselves severely disadvantaged as the more and more American colleges and universities plan to implement online and remote learning for the 2020-2021 semester.

In early 2020, the University of Houston-Downtown addressed this issue by delivering retired computers and WiFi adapters to students without access to internet or web-enabled devices to complete their coursework. Georgetown is addressing the issue head-on, stating that it plans to open its campus to about 2,000 students “whose personal or family situation makes it impossible or unrealistic to pursue their studies at their permanent address.” It is likely that COVID-19 will change how schools provide education, and high-speed broadband is a central element.

The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Offers New Opportunity

The FCC is actively working to close the rural digital divide, noting that “In the more than two decades since the Commission established the Universal Service Fund pursuant to Congress’ directive, broadband has gone from being a luxury to a necessity integrated into nearly every facet of our economy and society.”

Earlier this year, it took its biggest step yet, announcing the launch of the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to help expand rural broadband deployment and bring high-speed fixed broadband service to rural homes and small businesses. The FCC’s biggest single step toward closing the rural digital divide, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will occur in two phases: Phase I, which begins in October 2020, will allocate up to $16 billion to address the more than six million homes and businesses that are entirely unserved by voice and broadband with download speeds of at least 25 Mbps.

Phase II will award any remaining Phase I budget, plus $4.4 billion, to cover any remaining locations, as well as those that are partially served. The fund will prioritize “higher network speeds and lower latency, so that those benefitting from these networks will be able to use tomorrow’s internet applications as well as today’s,” the FCC states.

Rural Electric Cooperatives as Broadband Leaders

As COVID-19 shows, communication networks are critical infrastructure, and reliable broadband is vital to advance economic opportunities, health and safety, and education, not to mention social mobility, civic engagement and quality of life in rural communities. To connect rural citizens, we need large-scale fiber deployments and rural broadband investments, and we need to engage rural electric cooperatives (co-ops) to lead these deployments in their communities.

As funding becomes available, electric co-ops have an opportunity to partner with government agencies and businesses to bring high-speed broadband to their rural populations—a job that co-ops take seriously. There are 834 electric distribution cooperatives (co-ops) in the U.S. that provide 30% of the fiber service in rural communities. Their leadership makes sense. Co-ops are non-profit and member-owned, which means they can endure longer return-on-investment cycles. They own poles, equipment and rights-of-ways that can be used for broadband deployment, and co-ops often have fiber backbones as part of their grid systems that can be leveraged to expand broadband throughout the community. This would make a real difference.

Many co-ops have already started planning for fiber broadband by completing feasibility studies to sketch out a broadband strategy and determine next steps. As co-ops plan how to bring broadband to their communities, Black & Veatch observes that taking these steps early in the process helps communities save time and money on the back end:

  1. Review cost assumptions and business plan: Not all feasibility studies are done to the same scope or depth, so it is important to continue the positive forward progress by adding definition and surety to the model and business assumptions.
  2. Conduct detailed mapping of existing fiber assets: While time-intensive, the information will be highly valuable in the formal design process and will impact the project financials. Some entities include this in their comprehensive engineering contract, while others find it beneficial to get the process started in-house. 
  3. Resolve program hurdles: The feasibility study will highlight technical, logistical or regulatory issues that will need to be addressed. Tackle tough issues head on and address long lead-time items early, like service provisioning, billing, operational needs, and operations integration.

With so much hinging on reliable high-speed rural broadband, it’s time to invest in the infrastructure. As federal funding becomes available, co-ops are natural leaders for rural fiber and broadband deployment. These digital building blocks will ensure rural communities thrive, which benefits us all.

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