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Rural Communities Must Take Charge of Their Own Broadband Future


The Big Shift

Nearly a century ago, Congress established national policy that every community throughout the nation should have access to similar communications facilities at “reasonable” charges.  It was recognized then, as it is today, that a ubiquitous communications infrastructure is a fundamental requirement for a functioning national economy and social cohesion. 

Throughout much of the 20th Century, local telecommunications companies operated as regulated monopolies in an assigned area. Under terms of regulation, they were required to provide quality basic communication services at reasonable prices to every community in the region they served. However there is a big shift in how this policy is accomplished today. Unregulated private companies compete to provide high-speed Internet services responding to market demand, not regulation. Providers choose where to invest based on their perceived economic return. The result of the big shift in public policy is stark.  Across large swaths of rural America, Internet service is unreliable, too slow, or non-existent.  This in spite of billions of dollars of Federal funding intended to incent competing communication companies to invest in rural and tribal communities where it can be difficult for providers to recover their investment costs. 

Lessons from the Farm

Rural communities are familiar with the challenge of having to create their own solutions to attract essential services necessary for their economic survival.  For example, as small scale farming evolved into a global commercial agriculture network, farmers formed regional marketing cooperatives to offer the volume required for contracts with transportation services essential to reach distant markets.  A growing number of communities are applying a similar model to attract providers of quality, affordable broadband.  Individually dispersed households, small businesses and even larger businesses and public institutions in smaller, more remote areas are too often viewed as not profitable to serve.  However when the entire rural region joins together to champion a collective demand for quality and affordable Internet connections, it is more likely that investment will follow.  Several conditions are common where this approach is successful.

  • Maximum Regional Leverage: Individual rural communities are typically small. By joining together with their similarly positioned neighbors, champions of broadband demand are better able to demonstrate a level of collective potential business that is needed to attract investment from providers.
  • Collaborative Anchor Institutions:  A tactical approach to attract broadband investment by demonstrating a collective regional demand requires strong buy-in and collaboration from the largest potential customers (examples such as schools, hospitals, local government, larger businesses, etc.).  Specifically, in successful communities these larger customers agree to collaborate together on future contracts for service and champion connections to area households and small businesses.
  • Demonstrated Business Case: In the end, broadband providers deliver high-speed Internet services where it is profitable to do so. Specific ways to enhance that business case include:
  1. Survey results and other data describing both current and projected future demand for high-speed Internet services.
  2. Evidence of strong community buy-in to a future vision for regional broadband access, adoption and application.
  3. Commitment to on-going digital literacy and broadband adoption education.
  4. Application to receive relevant state/ federal funding.

Taking Charge

Similar to farm communities joining together to access critical commodity transportation, economic survival in many rural communities today requires tactical collective organization to pursue broadband investment.

The century-old policy requiring that every community throughout the nation should have access to similar communications facilities at “reasonable” charges remains a national priority today.  There are a multitude of resources intended to help ensure every community can access the essential digital infrastructure required for economic and social viability:

  • Billions of dollars in new broadband infrastructure and planning funds included within the Investment and Jobs Act of 2021.
  • More than 30 programs administered by 7 separate federal agencies support broadband deployment, adoption, and application.
  • Most states have formed, or are forming, state broadband offices.
  • A number of universities provide outreach intended to support broadband planning and adoption.

Government resources such as these are essential to success, but not in themselves a solution.  Especially rural and tribal communities faced with an immediate need of economic survival must take charge by leveraging these available resources within the context of local and regional initiatives to shape their own broadband future. 

Prepared for Futures Research by Bill Gillis, Spokane, WA.