Few today remember a time when households, particularly those in rural communities, shared “party lines” for their telephone service. I can still remember visiting my grandparents on their farm in rural Ohio and hearing my grandmother ask her neighbor to get off the line so she could make a phone call. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that most rural Americans could choose to have their own private telephone lines — something every American now takes for granted.
Today, the connection being sought by these same rural communities is to the internet. In large cities, many people take broadband internet service for granted, but it has been slow to deploy in smaller rural towns and villages.
One reason for the delay in reaching these areas of the country is the failure of government programs that were intended to promote and expand rural broadband. The 2009 stimulus bill allocated $7.2 billion for broadband infrastructure and technology grants, issued through the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. These programs were riddled with waste and mismanagement, often resulted in overbuilding infrastructure where it already existed, and did little to expand broadband into rural communities and other unserved areas of the country.
Another impediment is the multitude of government regulations and requirements at the federal, state, and local level. There are costly and multiple applications required for tower sites, slow application approvals, historic designation criteria, tribal lands issues, and general rent-seeking activities that can slow or halt deployment of next generation technology.
To address some of these issues at the federal level, President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump lawyers to Supreme Court: Jan. 6 committee 'will not be harmed by delay' Two House Democrats announce they won't seek reelection DiCaprio on climate change: 'Vote for people that are sane' MORE signed two executive orders on Jan. 8, 2018, to spur the deployment of broadband in rural communities. The first order instructs the Department of Interior to dedicate a portion of its assets for rural broadband installation. The second order will streamline the installation process by requiring agencies to use standardized forms and contracts for installing antennas on federal buildings. Connecting rural America to broadband is expected to be considered during the debate on infrastructure legislation.
On the same date as the executive orders, the Department of Agriculture released a report on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity. The first “call to action” in the report is to achieve e-Connectivity for Rural America. Since expanding broadband to rural areas is expensive and challenging due to low population density and difficult geography, the report calls for new infrastructure and innovative business models that promote capital investments in rural broadband. It also proposes a reduction and modernization of regulations, which will encourage greater use of the entire communications ecosystem, including cellular networks, fixed wireless, wireline, and satellite.
Private sector companies are also working towards solutions to address the digital divide, such as the use of TV white spaces (TVWS) for broadband connection in remote areas of the country. This technology is being tested in several states, including North Carolina and Virginia. TVWS signals have the ability to travel further than a standard Wi-Fi signal, and, in lower spectrum frequencies can penetrate through obstacles and cover uneven ground with less infrastructure. Several technology companies are proposing to use TVWS to bridge the digital divide, and a new rural broadband coalition has been established, which is dedicated to increasing rural access to broadband using TVWS.
Rural broadband is a long way from the party lines that were used from the 1940s through the 1970s, when callers would have to tell their neighbors to get off the phone when they were talking to friends and family. Solving the digital chasm of connectivity is a key component to enabling rural America to succeed. Public/private partnerships, sharing initiatives, and a deregulatory resolve to get government out of innovation’s way will work wonders to help bridge the digital divide and move rural America forward.
Deborah Collier serves as the director of technology and telecommunications policy for Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonprofit group aimed at promoting limited government.