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How COVID-19 is proving the urgency of delivering universal broadband

How COVID-19 is proving the urgency of delivering universal broadband
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The COVID-19 pandemic has put the consequences of America’s “digital divide” on full display. Elderly Americans are forced to travel long distances and risk infection at hospitals — or even go without care — because the lack of rural broadband prevents deployment of telehealth. 

Today, 4.6 million students lack home Internet and must either miss class or venture to public Wi-Fi hotspots where the virus may cluster. Countless rural businesses without viable connectivity cannot transition to remote work and rural workforces are feeling the strain. This dire situation makes clear the need for universal rural broadband. 

To finally deliver on this promise, we need an effort on the scale of the Rural Electrification Act (REA), passed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the depths of the Depression to power farms and small towns out of poverty. We must pass a 21st century version of that act, one that equips local communities with the resources they need to bring connectivity to the last mile of rural America. 

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Fortunately, we know this can be done. Through our work at the Center on Rural Innovation, we’ve witnessed the many different ways small towns have defied the naysayers and used rural creativity to successfully implement broadband. In our nationwide network of 20 rural communities, all have fast broadband and 11 are building fiber to the home, delivering some of the fastest speeds in the country. From Independence, Ore., to Red Wing, Minn., we’ve seen firsthand that the question shouldn’t be whether broadband can be done — it can — but rather, which model best fits the community that wants to leverage it. 

So how have they made it work?  

In Emporia, Kan., a small group of local investors spun up ValuNet Fiber, which pairs innovative fiber engineering with a dedication to local service. In Wilson, N.C., the town itself created Greenlight Community Broadband, leveraging government bonds to create a municipal gigabit network that supports high-tech startups and the Gig East innovation hub. Independence, Ore., followed Wilson’s model, but partnered with the neighboring town of Monmouth to create a regional telecom called MINet. And in Springfield, Vt., (the hometown of Vermont Telephone Company), they used federal stimulus dollars to create a widespread gigabit network across the state, giving Springfield the opportunity to transform from a struggling manufacturing town into a burgeoning tech hub. The innovation goes on.

Success stories from communities like these can be a roadmap for other small towns looking to modernize their infrastructure. Broadband is a critical piece of the infrastructure needed for rural communities to thrive. If there was ever a time for a new and innovative approach to democratizing rural broadband, that time would be now. Here’s two steps to get it done: 

First, we need to make it easier to build new fiber networks. That starts by reducing barriers and red tape wherever possible to decrease the costs of deployment. This includes removing restrictions and regulations on stringing fiber along poles, along with simplifying the process to build out new networks or expand existing ones. It also includes ending restrictions on who can build networks and ensuring that municipalities are not barred from creating their own networks. 

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Second, we need to set up models to de-risk deployment for taxpayers and small-town communities. Following the broadband model used in the state of Vermont, we should authorize “Communications Union Districts” that enable communities to access municipal bonds for financing the broadband buildout, without putting taxpayers at risk. This model also enables districts to aggregate demand (as is the case with water or sewer districts), making the networks cheaper to operate. 

Of course, scaling this vision will take significant resources, so the federal government should create a new federal loan program, reminiscent of the REA, where the federal government offers 50-year, no-interest loans to communities and co-ops creating rural fiber broadband networks. 

By providing resources to encourage locally driven solutions, rural communities can effectively address the challenges they see on the ground while seizing the agency that comes from laying the groundwork for economies of the future. 

Within nine years of FDR passing the Rural Electrification Act, the number of small-town residents with electricity skyrocketed from around 10 percent to an estimated 90 percent. As we confront our current crisis, those same transformative results should be our bar. 

For the elderly people who can’t reach a doctor, for the students who are missing their lessons and for the workers and entrepreneurs who are losing their livelihoods, we need a rural broadband plan that delivers real results — and we need it now.

Matt Dunne is the founder and executive director of the Center on Rural Innovation, which uses data analytics and engagement with rural community leaders to foster resilient prosperity in small-town America.