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Logistical challenges remain for universal access to broadband internet

By Anthony SanFilippo
October 2021

When most of the country was introduced to high-speed internet and was able to graduate from the old and slow dial up connections, it would have been hard to believe that all these years later there would still be a significant amount of people in America without such access.

And yet, that is the case.

As most of us conduct our lives online, both professionally and personally, using high-speed connections that make our computers, tablets, telephones and televisions smarter and faster, a good chunk of Americans live their lives every day without such instant access to the world wide web or the applications that make our lives easier.

In fact, as we enter the third decade of the 21st century, the number is not a small one. According to BroadbandNow, an independent consumer data company that tracks pricing, speed and availability of all 2,000 internet service providers in the U.S., there are 42 million Americans without any broadband access whatsoever and 120 million Americans without a fast enough connection to even be considered the internet.

“Where we are today is an unbelievable mess. That’s all there is to it. Just a flat mess. Any way you cut it—a mess.”
– West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice

The majority of those individuals live in rural communities or in neighborhoods that are predominantly Black, Hispanic or indigenous.

This is certainly a problem that has been festering at the federal level for some time, and action is being taken to try and help.

Tom Vilsack, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary, announced recently that his agency is making funding available to bring significant expansion of access to high-speed internet, and with it, educational and health care services for Americans in need.

According to Vilsack, the USDA has $1.15 billion available to help expand broadband access to communities in need.

“For too long, the digital divide has left too many people living in rural communities behind, unable to compete in the global economy and without access to the services and resources that all Americans need,” Vilsack said in a statement. “These actions will go a long way toward ensuring that people who live or work in rural areas can tap into the benefits of broadband.”

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Those benefits include specialized health care, greater access to educational opportunities and the ability to tap into the global marketplace.

“Rural people, businesses, and communities must have affordable, reliable, high-speed internet so they can fully participate in modern society and the modern economy,” he said.

The USDA will begin accepting applications for loans and grants on Nov. 24. The funding is being made available through the USDA’s ReConnect Program.

It’s a start, but it’ll take even more.

Upstart Telecoms have a leg up on Silicon Valley

Small telecoms across the country are trying to do their part as well.

Bloomberg spoke with Elizabeth Bowles, President of Aristotle Inc., about trying to bring more access to the Arkansas Delta.

Bowles pointed out that her company will do whatever it can to get the internet to far-reaching customers, identifying high points in the Delta that she could potentially put an antenna to help get the internet further out there – including on top of water towers, smokestacks, even flagpoles.

Of course, doing it Bowles’ way is not like being wired fiber-optically, as many neighborhoods are in the northeast with Verizon, or be wired directly from the street like Comcast will do in markets where they dominate.

But running wire or even fiber is not affordable in certain places. Out in the Delta, it costs $9 for every foot of fiber that has to be run.

Bowles is using the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) to try and augment the signal. The CBRS is a series of wireless channels used by the U.S. Navy to transmit radar to and from their aircraft carriers. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has made a sliver of these channels available in recent years for commercial use.

But it can only help for a few miles and only in certain areas.

While the Arkansas Delta is one of those trouble spots for high-speed connectivity, it’s not the worst in the U.S.

According to BroadBandNow, Montana ranks last in the U.S. when comparing access, pricing and speed together in the country. Arkansas is second.

Montana’s average internet speed is just 109 mbps. By comparison, the state with the fastest broadband is Virginia with 458 mbps.

However, 77% of Montana residents have access to high-speed internet. That number is still low, but it’s better than nine other states- the worst being West Virginia, where only 52% of residents have access to broadband.

However, help might be coming to West Virginia, and not just with USDA funds.

According to the West Virginia Daily News, approximately 200,000 homes that do not have adequate access to high-speed internet will get some help from a state broadband initiative that has more than $1 billion available in project funding.

Because of the hills and mountains in West Virginia, it’s difficult to get the high-speed internet everywhere in the state. Infrastructure costs were through the roof.

But Gov. Jim Justice recently announced that $236 million from the state broadband initiative, plus $362 million in FCC funding, and an additional $120 million in state and federal dollars will allow for the infrastructure needed to be developed and built. The money should be allocated by the fall of 2022 and will be managed in a newly created Broadband Development Fund.

“Where we are today is an unbelievable mess,” Justice told the Daily News.  “That’s all there is to it. Just a flat mess. Any way you cut it—a mess.

“Now, we’ve put real money into it and we’re going to (change) it from a mess to (something) much, much, much better. After we make it much, much better, if there is anybody that we’ve left out, we are going to have to come back and put a few more bucks into it, and we are going to have to get them too. That’s the whole plan.”

Everybody is trying something. Even major corporations have put together initiatives to try and expand access to Broadband, but not every idea is a good one.

Facebook concocted a plane to use solar power planes to deliver the internet to remote areas. That was scrapped in 2018. Alphabet Inc. floated the idea of using stratospheric balloons similar to weather balloons. That was killed earlier in 2021.

What every local, state, and even the federal government is learning is that providing broadband access to every American is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Every location has its own set of challenges that needs to be considered.

What’s the next step?

Microsoft has created an Airband initiative that plans to get 3 million more Americans online by July 2022. Vickie Robinson, the general manager for the project, told Bloomberg that the best solution is to make good by using whatever technology there is to offer at the time.

“What’s going to give you the most bang for your buck? That should be the guiding principle,” she said.

So, new ideas are being considered every day – like the CBRS in Arkansas. Some want to try using Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites. Others believe in using 5G to provide home internet.

Regardless, this is something that needs greater attention, and is starting to get it. President Biden’s infrastructure plan that finally passed both houses of Congress includes$65 billion for broadband-related subsidies.

The funding is there. The desire is there. Americans need access. It’s all a matter of finding the best ways technologically to get it done so that every American is on equal footing when it comes to their internet access.


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