When Galen Manners was offered a promotion at his job, he didn’t want to relocate to the big city from his family in rural Kansas, where he helped his two brothers run their 2,000-acre farm in his spare time.
His employer gave him the option to work from home. But there was one problem. There was no high-speed internet access to remotely connect him to the company’s headquarters, more than 300 miles away in Little Rock, Arkansas. So Manners, who had worked for a small wireless provider, built his own broadband network.
“I networked cell towers for a living, so I figured I could do the same thing for myself,” he said.
Manners cobbled together his network using a dedicated connection from a phone company in the closest “city”: Parsons, Kansas, population 9,000. He rented rooftop space on an eight-story building, one of the tallest in town, and engineered a private wireless network using a cell tower he had erected on his family’s farm.
Soon his cousin down the road asked if he could be connected to the network. Then a neighbor on the next farm wanted connectivity. By the time he connected 20 relatives and neighbors, a business was born. Manners started Wave Wireless in 2000. Since then, the small provider has grown to serve 2,500 customers, including the parents of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, who were customers before moving away from the Parsons area.
Manners’ small wireless internet service provider isn’t uncommon. It’s estimated there are about 2,000 companies providing fixed wireless broadband access across all 50 states, serving an average of 1,200 customers each, according to Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, or WISPA.
They’re part of a solution to a critical problem facing the US — delivering broadband services to millions of rural Americans who don’t have access in their homes, farms and businesses. With broadband having become as essential as running water and electricity to improving people’s daily lives and providing a standard of living equal to that of urban and suburban parts of the country, policy makers are working together to close the connectivity gap.
Pai said that what gives people hope in rural America is the “promise of digital opportunity.”
“Broadband is a game changer for rural America,” he said in an interview. Pai, who has traveled to 41 states since taking office in January 2017, said federal and state authorities need to have the same sense of mission they had back when they made a priority of providing electricity to every American.
“I see it is as an echo of the rural electrification efforts we saw in the 1930s, almost 100 years ago,” he said.
At stake isn’t just whether someone in rural Arkansas can watch cat videos on YouTube or check Facebook. It’s about whether rural communities can survive.
In previous generations, communities thrived based on their proximity to infrastructure like roads, railways, airports and rivers to distribute goods. Today, it’s about having access to reliable, affordable high-speed internet. Communities without access will simply wither and die, says Jonathan Chambers, a former FCC official and partner at the Washington-based consulting firm Conexon, which works with electric co-ops looking to deliver rural broadband service.
“People will vote with their feet and move away from places that do not provide high-speed internet access,” he said. “They will leave, and that community will not survive.”
In spite of the billions of dollars in private investment and government subsidies over multiple decades, the numbers still paint a disturbing picture. Roughly 39 percent of rural Americans lack access to high-speed broadband, compared with just 4 percent of urban Americans, according to a report from the FCC using 2016 figures.
The internet that rural Americans can access is slower and more expensive than it is for their urban counterparts. And to add insult to injury, the rural population generally earns less than those in urban areas.
Building networks in rural America is incredibly expensive, and in some places it’s nearly impossible. The terrain can be a problem in areas like West Virginia, nestled among the Appalachian, Allegheny and Cumberland mountain ranges. In Alaska or Minnesota, the ground could be frozen for more than half the year, making it nearly impossible to install fiber or other infrastructure.
But the biggest barrier to getting broadband in certain areas of the country is low population density. Broadband providers simply won’t offer service if they can’t get enough customers to pay for it. In sparsely populated areas like Cass County, Iowa, where my CNET colleague Shara Tibken was born and raised, residents may see internet speeds of 5 megabits per second, a far cry from the 25 Mbps speeds the FCC defines as broadband.
“The challenge in rural areas is it’s just not economical for private parties to invest there,” said Doug Brake, director of broadband and spectrum policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
In places like Alaska, the ground can be frozen for half the year, limiting the amount of time crews have to install broadband infrastructure.
Even as progress is made to get rural America connected, the disparity between the haves and have-nots in terms of speed and network quality is likely to get worse. Big broadband providers will focus on the more densely populated and profitable areas of the country, delivering gigabit speed broadband — often from not just one provider but from multiple companies. The advent of 5G wireless, which promises to bring increased speeds and network responsiveness, is also unlikely to reach rural communities.
“Market forces are what will drive the deployment of 5G,” said Blair Levin, who oversaw the FCC’s National Broadband report in 2010 and who served as chief of staff to Clinton-era FCC Chairman Reed Hundt. “The 5G economics are very different than they are for 4G. And cities, because of their density, are in a much better position to drive 5G deployment than rural communities.”
Story by CNET Marguerite Reardon and photos by Shara Tibken, Oct 23, 2018
The preceding story is a comprehensive one dealing with one case of bridging the digital divide and how it improved the QOL (Quality of Life) for people in Rural Kansas. This case is a typical one for rural America in that it is a fill-in opportunity where the local market is too small for the large service providers to support, yet not too large a gap for a determined citizen (or other community minded people) to solve the various logistics challenges. A modest amount of this story also covers the politics of rural broadband.
It should be noted that the FCC publishes rural Broadband Maps. This is a notable achievement; however it seems that some people are not too impressed with the accuracy of these maps. These maps are produced from ISP’s self-reporting.
Forthcoming requirements are that FCC “will collect geospatial broadband coverage maps from Internet service providers,” and create a crowdsourcing system to collect public input on the accuracy of ISP-submitted maps.” (ref: https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2019/08/the-fccs-horrible-broadband-mapping-system-is-finally-getting-an-upgrade/)