Rural Broadband Experts: New Government Efforts Short On Money, But Show Promise

Originally published on February 21, 2018 8:32 am

Since the George W. Bush administration, the federal government has doled out millions of dollars with the promise to expedite access to broadband service in remote parts of the country.

President Donald Trump is no exception, having signed an executive order earlier this month directing the government to use “all viable tools” to speed up the process to locate wireless technology on federal buildings in rural areas. Plus, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai just proposed putting a $500 million toward rural broadband.

While all political persuasions agree with the recent U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Task Force report that broadband is critical for the economic health of a large swath of the country, experts say the devil is in the details — or lack thereof. They also say Pai’s infusion of money does little more than restore funding that previously had been cut.

Some U.S. senators are asking for dedicated money for broadband through an unspecified infrastructure package instead of what’s amounted to a pile of executive orders and 39 percent of rural America still without broadband service.

Trump’s executive order is “a very solid first step” but “very, very similar to what is currently under discussion at the FCC,” according to Shirley Bloomfield, the CEO of the national Rural Broadband Association (also known as NTCA). She was on stage Jan. 8 at the American Farm Bureau’s national conference in Nashville, Tennessee, when Trump signed the executive order — a move she says will “ease the way, it will speed some of the things up.”

But Bloomfield, who’s headed the NTCA for eight years, says more needs to be done. She says people underestimate what it costs to connect far-flung parts of America to the internet at speeds that allow people to stream videos and handle large amounts of data and uploads.

The reason it’s so expensive, Bloomfield said, is simple: density. She compared living in an urban area like Washington, D.C., where there might be on average 300 people per square mile, to a rural area “where on average our folks that we represent here have about 5.5 customers per mile of wire.”

“That fiber isn’t getting any cheaper. Your software and your switching capacity isn’t any cheaper. But the number of customers that you have to spread the cost among is a lot fewer,” she said via Skype.

Where the buildings aren't

One of the things the executive order puts forth is having the General Services Administration, which oversees hundreds of federal buildings, respond to and approve more quickly providers’ requests to put wireless services on such buildings, federal lands, federally assisted highways and tribal lands.

It’s not that easy, though. For one, even though there are USDA offices all over, much of rural America isn’t near a federal building.

“Well, I look at our area, I can’t think of any that would be a potential site,” said Jason Smith, the general manager and CEO of Rainbow Communications in Everest, Kansas. Smith, whose utility provides fiber-based broadband service over 500 square miles (about 1,500 people) in northeast Kansas, said Trump’s plan “sounded good,” but he wanted more details.

“(Trump) knows that the towers were coming. The disconnect is in the rural areas: The towers, they don’t stand alone. As a rural provider, we’re still going to have to get fiber access to those towers to be able to provide service back to the main, to the core network,” Smith said.

The GSA declined an interview with Harvest Public Media, but provided a statement that it released after Trump’s executive orders.

“We look forward to evaluating our current application process in order to remove any obstacles to broadband services and efficiently utilize government resources,” GSA Administrator Emily Murphy said. “We will collaborate with industry to deploy faster broadband so that rural Americans may have access to affordable, reliable, and modern high-speed broadband connectivity.”

An expensive process

Even if there is less red tape, funding is still an issue for Smith and utilities like his. Less money is coming from the federal Universal Service fund (USF) which helps pay for broadband expansion. Pai, the FCC chairman, said last week that he’d like to put $500 million toward building out broadband, but both Bloomfield and Smith believe that’s just restoring money to the Universal Service pot.

Smith said Rainbow Communications initially saw a 6 percent cut of its USF money, but is now up to almost 15 percent, which makes it difficult to budget at a time when he’s seeing the demand for broadband grow annually.

“I don’t know what the impacts will be (of the proposed $500 million), if this is the short-term fix, that we’re going to overhaul the whole system or this is just a one-time infusion. I mean, this is definitely a step in the right direction to help make up for some of the shortfalls,” he said.

Funding is a major concern for the Senate Broadband Caucus, too. The bipartisan panel, of which North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is a part, sent a letter to Trump on Wednesday again asking that rural broadband be included in any infrastructure initiative that he’s been discussing.

“In (rural) communities, general private investment can be difficult. Without dedicated funding for broadband deployment, proposals to bring broadband to unserved areas may struggle to compete with other larger infrastructure projects,” wrote Sens. Heitkamp; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota; Angus King, I-Maine; John Boozman, R-Arkansas; and Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia. “Stand-alone funding for broadband will ensure that telecommunications infrastructure is advanced alongside needed upgrades to our roads, rail, bridges, ports and waterways.”

Smith points out that in his area, agriculture depends on technology. He’s seeing farmers use more bandwidth to remotely monitor crops in the field and grain-storage bins scattered across the countryside. But he also said his residential customers are looking to “start their own businesses” or “pursue advanced degrees from colleges by taking distance-learning classes in their home.”

“That wasn’t even a possibility 10 years ago,” he said.

To that end, the USDA announced Friday it would dole out $23.6 million in the form of 72 grants for distance learning and telemedicine in places like Colorado, Illinois, Missouri and Nebraska. The agency’s news release said these are “vital services” that will help rural areas “overcome the effects of remoteness and low population density by connecting them to the rest of the world through high-speed internet.”

It’s another sign that this administration is emphasizing broadband access for all. But Bush in 2004 said he wanted to have the whole country connected by 2007. It’s a decade later, and it’ll take more than several million dollars and executive orders to make this long-discussed hope a reality.

Follow Erica on Twitter: @ehunzinger

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