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Fiber. WiFi. 5G. Satellites. Dial-up.
While most of us are less worried how we get our home connection to the internet, there are many Americans (and others across the globe) who either don’t have access or their connection speed is unfairly slow and unreliable.
How did we get here is less important than what we are doing about it.
And we’re living (in the United States) in a time, partially thanks to the pandemic, where broadband connectivity is seen as critical infrastructure.
The United States government, along with regional telecommunication and internet service providers, stepped in to offer a tremendous amount of support to those who needed internet access for remote education, work from home and other pandemic-induced needs.
How are we doing this, and why should you care if rural Americans do or don’t have a fast internet connection?
Author’s note: My undergrad education was focused on telecommunications, and I’ve worked in the networking and connectivity world, from telecom to data centers, for more than two decades.
Establishing the hierarchy
From The Biden-Harris Plan to Build Back Better in Rural America:
Rural America is home to roughly 20% of Americans, but we are all connected to rural communities in many ways. Rural America is asset-rich. It feeds and fuels the rest of the country, gives us places to enjoy the outdoors and spend time with friends and family, and is home to creative, hard-working Americans. A healthy, vibrant rural America is essential to the success of our country.
Yet in small town after small town, parents watch their kids and grandkids leave rural communities because there just is not enough opportunity for them at home. Rural America’s economy is traditionally based on extraction, taking the resources out of rural communities and never returning the profits. Even before the coronavirus, for too many rural Americans, a pathway to the middle class was out of reach if they stayed in their rural communities.
This quote, and the accompanying website, is from the Biden-Harris 2020 presidential campaign.
An outline of how the administration would use the federal government to push new funding opportunities that would close seeming gaps in opportunities across the nation.
And this line was the kickoff for the broadband focus of the administration’s plan:
Expand broadband, or wireless broadband via 5G, to every American.
“to every American”.
And here’s the accompanying, high-level, five-point plan:
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- Invest $20 billion in rural broadband infrastructure, and ensure that the work of installing broadband provides high-paying jobs with benefits
- Triple funding for Community Connect broadband grants to expand broadband access in rural areas
- Direct the federal government – especially the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture – to support cities and towns that want to build municipally-owned broadband networks
- Work with the FCC to reform its Lifeline program, increasing the number of participating broadband providers, reducing fraud and abuse, and ultimately offering more low-income Americans the subsidies needed to access high-speed internet
- Work with Congress to pass the Digital Equity Act, to help communities tackle the digital divide
Where is the $20 billion coming from and how is it being appropriated?
The Biden administration is looking at different funding mechanisms to pay for its broadband expansion. However it’s being paid for, the funds–through a grant application process-are already being distributed:
Sept. 22, 2022 – U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced that the Department is awarding $502 million in loans and grants (PDF, 221 KB) to provide high-speed internet access for rural residents and businesses in 20 states.
(The speed of the distribution is another story.)
The grant application process allows the federal (and state) governments to apply criteria to those service providers who are awarded the funds.
Location, timing, etc. are all a part of who receives the funding. The grants have been awarded (there are several tranches of grants) and awardees are now drawing up plans to use the funding for their regional network expansion.
With parts, labor and deliverables all being impacted by economic conditions and residual supply chain constraints, the cost of constructing and deploying these new broadband networks is being disrupted daily.
However, those plans and some of the funds are starting to roll out. Which means the clock is ticking.
Within the next 12-18 months, new broadband networks will be brought “to every American”, connecting our neighbors to a world offering new education, employment and entertainment opportunities.
We’re just scratching the surface here. However, I’m hoping to highlight the funding challenges of expanding broadband networks.
You may argue that satellite is cheaper and faster to deploy, and can reach parts of the country that fiber or wireline networks can’t reach.
While I have a bias (fiber), I will do my best to keep that bias at bay and instead focus on the challenges, benefits and opportunities of expanding our national broadband footprint.
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