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Perspective

Connecting Rural America Through Wide-Scale Broadband

Connecting Rural America Through Wide-Scale Broadband

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission set new download/upload speed standards for reliable internet service in the United States. The standard, which was increased to 25 Mbps download speed/3 Mbps upload speed (up from 4 Mbps/1 Mbps), was updated to reflect a rapidly changing marketplace and evolving consumer behavior.

Today, nearly one-quarter of rural Americans (22.3 percent), still don’t have access to the 25/3 Mbps that was specified as the minimum broadband requirement for widespread internet access. These digital “have-nots” are falling behind their urban counterparts, with far-reaching economic, health and educational consequences for millions of Americans.

Even though 65 percent of rural residents now have some access to wireless communication, speeds are typically insufficient for many uses. The average download speed for users of fixed broadband is 94 Mbps. A household or office with the minimum 25/3 service will experience lags with parallel users. Slower speeds are inadequate for homeschooling, telecommuting and tele-medicine needs, all of which have become vital during this year’s COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced many to take their lives online.

Connectivity is an Essential Service

Like water or electricity, high-speed connectivity is now an essential service. It gives citizens equitable access to the vital economic and social opportunities of the digital era. But typical rural broadband technologies—such as existing satellite internet, dial-up and Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), mobile broadband, or fixed wireless broadband—are affected by weather, line-of-sight obstructions, and distance to towers or antennae. This complicates their deployment across rural communities and often renders inadequate speeds.

As we witnessed throughout 2020 and into 2021, life and commerce have moved online whether by necessity or choice, making wireless communication a true lifeline. Reliable connectivity and speed are vital and will become only more vital for the future.

Fiber is the key to ensuring reliable connectivity. Fiber is virtually unlimited in its ability to transmit data reliably over large distances – it can support a wide variety of technologies and apps, and it can be easily scaled to reach higher speeds and to include 5G networks. Communities that deploy fiber broadband open a digital door for their citizens, propelling innovation across industries.

The Community Payoff

Social mobility and quality of life in rural communities may well hinge on widespread access to the internet, easier digital connectivity and a more reliable and resilient digital experience for users. Communities that deploy fiber broadband realize a spectrum of benefits that powerfully impact their vitality. Advantages extend beyond local communities and generate a measurable return on investment.

Mobilize Innovation

Improvements to the digital landscape fosters new ideas and allows a free access to and exchange of information that, in turn, spurs growth and development of local business and industry. It’s a winning proposition for rural communities.

Provide Critical Healthcare

Fiber broadband supports access to critical healthcare that is currently unavailable to many rural residents. At-home consultations and treatment utilizing digital technology can relieve critical physician and facility shortages in rural communities, eliminate long drives to medical centers, and improve the general well-being of citizens.

Enable Better Education

During the pandemic's stay-at-home orders, virtual classrooms became the norm that may continue in some form even beyond the pandemic. Twenty-eight percent of rural students use the internet daily for homework, states the Pew Research Center, but nearly 750 schools have no fiber connection, and 750,000 students do not have the recommended bandwidth for digital learning, according to EducationSuperHighway.

Support Precision Agriculture

The USDA estimates that the economic impact of connecting farmers to reliable high-speed internet could reach $18-23 billion annually. Although more than half of farmers used a tablet or mobile device in 2019, the majority were connected only through DSL or satellite.

Slow Generational Decline

There's no doubt that younger people are abandoning their rural communities for better employment opportunities in the cities. With better access to digital communication, the current flight might be reversed, leading to a new era of business expansion in rural America.

Facilitate eCommerce

Small to medium-size businesses without reliable internet access cannot establish a digital presence, enable online sales and promotion, or interact with customers to enable business growth. Less than 10 percent of rural businesses have access the necessary bandwidth and reliability, according to Broadband Communities magazine.

Boost the Overall Economy

Digital shortcomings stunt business growth. According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, if 75 percent of rural households adopt broadband, then the economic impact over 20 years would exceed $100 billion.

Make Critical Connections

As all segments of society evolve digitally, we must face the fact that substantial portions of the population still sit on the sidelines. Fiber makes it possible to extend reliable high-speed internet access to all parts of the country, enabling innovation to benefit even the most remote segments of the U.S. Advanced communication networks are multi-faceted, capital-intensive infrastructure deployments that require careful coordination and have long lead times for engineering, procurement, and construction. Now is the time to start planning so that rural and underserved communities can connect and benefit from our expanding digital world.

Black & Veatch is at the forefront of applied digital technology that helps residents and businesses in rural and underserved communities. Download Black & Veatch’s latest eBook, Rural Broadband: 8 Actions to Ensure Fiber Deployment Success for insights on how the U.S. is prioritizing broadband, enabled by fiber, to connect rural citizens and foster much-needed innovation across services, businesses, and industries such as healthcare, education, and agriculture.

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