Rural and small-town Americans need modern communication tools for competitiveness in the global economy. Enhanced connectivity, particularly wireless access, would offer rural residents similar broadband benefits as urban areas. Rural communities should experience the same advancements in public safety, social interaction and business technology as cities, contingent on robust mobile broadband infrastructure.
“High-speed internet is a key to prosperity for people who live and work in rural communities,” said US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. High-speed internet is crucial for rural residents and businesses due to challenges like distance and low population density. Access is even more vital in rural areas, where essential services might not be nearby. Some refer to the digital service gap in rural areas as a "rural penalty," which hampers effective information use, impacting productivity and quality of life.
Numerous programs from agencies like the FCC, NTIA, and USDA work to narrow the digital divide by subsidizing connectivity across the US.
Path to Digital Inclusion
Vulnerable rural communities often encounter formidable obstacles in gaining access to and adopting broadband services. The Federal Communications Commission calculates that 17% of rural Americans and 21% of Tribal lands remain without physical broadband access.
The effectiveness of the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Program (BEAD) hinges largely on its ability to pinpoint and reach these underserved communities. The challenge doesn't stop at availability; fostering adoption and utilization is equally critical to harness community benefits. To this end, state initiatives should align with BEAD, utilizing available resources to enhance digital inclusion.
Rural households are making notable strides in joining the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) at a higher rate compared to their urban counterparts. ACP enrollment data up to April 2023 reveals that 15% of all rural households have enrolled.
This trend in rural ACP adoption highlights the vulnerability of subscriptions. A significant number of rural households struggle with subscription costs, making them "subscription vulnerable." This means that they find it challenging to afford their monthly internet bills and might face service disruptions during financial setbacks. Studies indicate that up to 44% of rural homes fall under this category.
For rural America, ACP serves primarily to alleviate existing service cost burdens, rather than solely expanding the ranks of broadband subscribers.
In this context, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration should also encourage states to invest in broadband for community anchor institutions like rural libraries and schools. This approach can swiftly extend access and drive positive change.
Each state is required to outline plans for addressing unserved areas untouched by other broadband initiatives. Input from local governments, internet service providers and nonprofit organizations will further refine these proposals.
The US Rural Broadband Market
According to a 2019 analysis by The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, rural regions still grapple with severe limitations in internet access. Particularly, households in rural areas with school-age children face the greatest challenges in securing high-speed internet, with the Southern regions experiencing the most pronounced disparities.
In alignment with this, research conducted by Brookings underscores regional discrepancies in rural broadband availability, with the Southern region registering the lowest rates. Additionally, the South exhibits the most significant gap in broadband accessibility between urban and rural locales.
The situation was further exacerbated by the pandemic. A Pew survey unveiled that a substantial one-third of low-income households encountered difficulties affording home internet services.
For service providers, the problem becomes more intricate when contemplating the rollout of costly fiber-based infrastructure and equipment to sparsely populated rural regions. With fewer customers to cater to, achieving a positive return on investment becomes a prolonged and challenging endeavor. In certain areas, achieving a break-even point seems elusive. Moreover, even if service providers were to introduce fiber-based connections to rural homes and attempt to recoup expenses through pricier subscription plans, the high costs alone would deter many underserved residents from subscribing, thereby limiting the potential for return on investment.
The US rural broadband market is currently undergoing rapid transformation. Various grants from the Federal Government have been allocated to drive the development of broadband infrastructure. This evolution is also being fueled by the expansion of Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP) technology into regions where ultrafast broadband was traditionally dominated by cable networks.
For instance, AT&T's 'Gigapower' joint venture with Black Rock for FTTP is a notable example. Despite an initially modest implementation, it holds the potential to extend the advantages of FTTP and open access to the numerous underserved areas across the country that lack adequate broadband infrastructure and connectivity.
Rural Connectivity and Innovations in North America
Addressing rural connectivity challenges remains a key focus in North America, particularly within hard-to-reach regions. According to the 2022 GSMA Mobile Economy North America report, Canadian operators are actively exploring 5G Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) opportunities with an emphasis on serving rural households.
Bell, for instance, has incorporated 5G into its Wireless Home Internet service, resulting in faster speeds and larger data allowances compared to its previous 4G offering. Similarly, Telus has revealed plans to leverage its Smart Hub technology and 5G network to enhance fixed wireless internet speeds in around 60 rural communities across British Columbia and Alberta by the close of 2022.
Operators' commitment to bridging the digital divide aligns with their contribution to multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) and SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities). Their investments in rural network infrastructure upgrades play a pivotal role in this endeavor. Notably, T-Mobile's 5G High-Speed Internet initiative has made affordable and reliable home broadband accessible to 30 million US households, a significant portion of which are situated in rural areas.
Aerial technologies, notably satellites, are also emerging as potential tools for enhancing rural connectivity, particularly for providing backhaul solutions in remote areas where microwave or fiber-optic options are impractical. Partnerships between operators and satellite companies are on the rise to support such initiatives. Verizon's collaboration with Amazon's Project Kuiper and AT&T's partnership with OneWeb exemplify this trend, aiming to expand backhaul solutions and improve connectivity in remote US communities.
Mobile operators are equally invested in initiatives aimed at providing affordable connectivity to underserved segments, facilitating access to crucial services like digital health and education tools. Telus plans to provide free smartphones and subsidized data plans to 30,000 marginalized Canadians by 2025, having already reached over 13,000 individuals, including 5,600 low-income elderly citizens. Rogers, on the other hand, has extended its donation program to offer phones and plans to more than 325 shelters and transition houses across Canada, aiding women and children escaping violence while connecting youth to mentors.
Enhancing rural connectivity in North America, especially across challenging rural areas, is an ongoing endeavor. The inclusion of 600 MHz to existing low bands has proven effective in boosting download speeds by 30–50% in rural locations.