By Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist
Countries blessed and cursed with wide-open spaces continue to wrestle with the question of how to serve rural areas with broadband infrastructure. In Australia, naysayers question the viability of its National Broadband Network.
In the United States, the stimulus package included some $3.5 billion for rural development, but based on progress reports from officials at the Department of Agriculture, the broadband deployment only addressed a small portion of the demand.
Indeed, Connected Nation conducted a survey of 27,086 residents across the United States to see if they have access to broadband, and if so, how they are using it. Based on this data, CN estimates that approximately 80.9 million adults nationwide do not have home broadband service, and adoption varies significantly across socioeconomic lines.
Not surprisingly, low income and rural homes are the least served.
The Return on Investment Dichotomy
Naysayers argue that serving rural areas means investing in infrastructure that, by definition, fewer people will use. But you can look at the issue from a question of benefit. Where I live in suburban Silicon Valley, I can choose from at least three different broadband methods – cable, DSL, and wireless broadband. That doesn’t include walking the two blocks to the closest Starbucks for Wi-Fi access.
But according to a recent survey by consultant Craig Settles on behalf of the Kauffman Foundation, only 54 percent of the rural population currently has broadband; the percentages fall based on socioeconomic factors. While citizens in urban and suburban areas have choices, those in rural areas still lack them.
We’ve written before on how broadband can reshape rural development. The U.S. government, based on its billion-dollar commitment, concurs. The October 2011 meeting of the Broadband Breakfast Club in Washington, D.C., a group sponsored by the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, Comcast, ICF International, Intel, Google, the Telecommunications Industry Association, and US Telecom, among others, was devoted to the topic of rural access.
Exploring the Business Case for Rural Broadband
One might question why you’d want to devote taxpayer dollars to providing broadband in areas where there may be homes, but not businesses. The answer is simple: in rural areas, farmers need reliable, rapid access to market and weather reports to improve output and plan crops.
Home access is important not only for home-based businesses but also for telecommuting, digital literacy and education, government interaction, and even online job-seeking.
How can we provide these services? At the meeting in Washington, Undersecretary for Rural Development of the United States Department of Agriculture, Dallas Tonsager argued for a 21st century counterpart to the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), which brought electricity to rural America.
The REA made long-term loans to state and local governments, to farmers’ cooperatives, and to nonprofit organizations. Its success was palpable: by the time it was abolished in 1994, more than 98% of all farms in the United States had electrical service.
The creativity that sparked the REA in turn sparked creativity regarding the development of rural electrical systems in the U.S., and the effort continues around the world. It stands to reason that if we re-apply that kind of creativity toward broadband, we can watch history repeat itself.
What are the roadblocks to broadband deployment in rural areas? Is it predominantly a return on investment issue? As always, we welcome your comments and local community observations.