With infrastructure week right around the corner and a new spending bill in the works, OTELCO wants to take this opportunity to stress the importance of broadband as infrastructure.
Rural Americans Need to be Connected
As it stands now, the digital divide continues to grow in rural America. According to Sharon Strover, the director of the Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute, rural America is being left in the dust when it comes to broadband. 39% of rural communities are unable to even access the FCC’s definition of “minimal broadband speed” (25/3 Mbps). In contrast, only 4% of urban communities lack access. Not only are these rural communities faced with less speed, but they are also given less choice in providers and are often paying more than the average urban customer.
This unbalanced distribution of broadband echoes the lack of electricity rural communities experienced in the late 1800s. Rural communities in Maine, Alabama, and Missouri, (OTELCO’s three primary locations) didn’t see electricity until 1880, and only in limited areas. It wasn’t until the New Deal and the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 that most electrical companies and co-ops were founded to deliver electricity on a broad scale. In spite of government subsidies, many rural locations were still without power as late as the 1950s.
Rural communities cannot wait another fifty years for adequate broadband speeds. Every day our world becomes more and more digital, and with that rural areas fall further and further behind. Kids need to be able to download their homework, the elderly should be able to access telehealth services, and telecommuters deserve the opportunity to work from wherever they want. None of this is possible without a sufficient and reliable Internet connection, which infrastructure funding could provide.
Local and State Governments Have Already Begun Investing
Across the country, cities, towns, counties, and states have been taking control of their broadband infrastructure. OTELCO has lent many a helping hand to municipal broadband projects, including our recent efforts to help extend LightWave fiber in Alton, ME. Recently, Chatanooga, TN, and Wilson, NC have made headlines with their municipally owned networks.
On the state level, there are many grants available. In OTELCO’s footprint, Alabama, Maine, West Virginia, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Missouri all offer grant funding of some sort. Many states also have dark fiber networks available for use, such as Washington State’s NoaNet and the Three-Ring Binder in Maine.
The federal government is also making an effort to help fund broadband expansion in the rural U.S. The USDA announced last year that they would be offering $700 million in grant funding, and the FCC has been underwriting rural broadband projects with their Connect America Fund and the Alternate Connect America Model for years. Today in DC, there has been support across the aisle for closing the digital divide, giving advocates of national broadband infrastructure hope.
With the Dig Once model, fiber optic conduit is buried alongside another underground infrastructure project, instead of mounted on poles or conducted during a sperate dig. This could prove to be an efficient way to tie in broadband expansion with more traditional infrastructure builds. For example, when a town trenches to repair waterway infrastructure, they could also lay fiber optic cables, protected by conduit. Proponents of Dig Once initiatives claim that the cost of underground fiber deployment in conjunction with road construction projects is about one-quarter of the cost of pole mounted fiber infrastructure.
OTELCO is Already Investing in Fiber Infrastructure
OTELCO is investing in broadband infrastructure in a series of ways. We are working with communities on municipal broadband projects, actively participating in the municipal broadband community, working with lawmakers, and building out Lightwave Fiber Internet wherever and whenever we can. OTELCO will continue in these efforts because we believe broadband is an important part of our country’s infrastructure.