The Rural Communities and the National Broadband Imperative 2022 is a post-pandemic primer on rural broadband. Much of it will not be new to readers. But it is a nice look at all aspects of rural broadband (including citations) on every aspect of broadband in rural areas – from how it’s used and needed to how and why there are issues. It’s a useful tool if you are talking to folks who have not been entrenched in broadband for years.
Useful to everyone is the final recommendations:
Create a rural broadband information clearinghouse: Create an easy to locate, accessible resource clearinghouse that centralizes solutions, data, and information for rural communities to leverage and develop broadband solutions for their own community. In a recent report, GAO59 noted: Federal broadband efforts are fragmented and overlapping, with more than 100 programs administered by 15 agencies. Many programs have broadband as their main purpose, and several overlap because they can be used for the purpose of broadband deployment. This overlapping can lead to the risk of unintended duplication of federal funding support and confusion. An effective clearinghouse will reduce the administrative burdens of rural communities seeking to build out their broadband networks. A Clearinghouse will also assist in ensuring that communities understand funding availability,
Reduce regulatory impediments: Eliminate and reduce unnecessary rules and regulations around broadband deployment. Broadband policies should improve the availability of affordable broadband services in rural areas, including the underserved and unserved areas in rural America. In addition to reducing Federal regulatory issues, local communities and public policy individuals need to reduce state and local impediments. To do this effectively, unnecessary red tape should be eliminated.
Identify and leverage local rural technology champions: Consultation and inclusion of rural community members is paramount to the success of the roll out of rural broadband. It is imperative that all levels of policy conversations around broadband include the input of people living and working in those rural communities. Obtaining buy-in from local communities assists with adoption and affordability.
Leverage technology as an enabler and not an end: Broadband solutions will need to be tailored to specific community needs. Policies should remain technology-neutral to allow for current and future deployment. Funding should be available for technologies that provide acceptable broadband service and is readily available to meet the future needs of rural communities. However, it is essential to include that funding applicants and/or partners must have a proven track record, including the financial and technical capacity to build, manage, and operate a sustainable network.
Mapping for rural communities: Mapping on a house-by-house, location-bylocation basis is important to understand where broadband internet service is available and to show where broadband issues and connectivity are lacking. There are examples of states and other agencies taking on the responsibility of determining the availability of coverage in their areas. These local or statewide programs assist with ascertaining a valid coverage map/ plan. The BEAD (Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment)Program60 will announce available funding following the FCC’s public release of its Broadband DATA Maps 61, and give applicants 180 days to apply to the fund. The FCC has announced that its Broadband DATA Maps will be released in November 2022. The identification of underserved and unserved areas will assist in closing the digital divide and deployment.
Affordable access: Providers should be encouraged to offer programs for adoption addressing broadband affordability for the consumers. Providers should be made aware of and encouraged to participate in the existing and future federal broadband affordability programs. If possible, states should have consistent eligibility criteria with federal affordability programs, enabling providers to quickly address affordability and make all available options known to rural and remote communities.
Leverage local anchor institutions and other partners: Anchor institutions like schools, libraries, hospitals, medical or healthcare providers, community colleges and other institutions of higher education can be leveraged for greater adoption. Programs providing broadband to anchor institutions should be taken into consideration. Anchor institutions often have high-capacity fiber connections that can provide a jumping-off point to facilitate broadband connectivity to the surrounding residential and business community.62 Rural broadband policies must include creative and non-traditional partnerships. Support for broadband deployment and adoption will need to include local partnerships that help drive programs to deploy broadband cost-effectively.
Increase digital literacy: Increasing availability doesn’t guarantee adoption. Consider having local rural organizations drive adoption by developing programs specifically geared toward specific demographics (i.e., aging, immigrants, etc.). For successful adoption by rural community members, the daunting world of cell phones and the internet must be shown to be helpful in everyday life. Early literacy programs assist with this as more and more educational, healthcare, and business opportunities are only available online. Funding should be available for literacy training, ensuring consumers have the equipment and information they need to get online.
Middle Mile: The term “middle-mile infrastructure” means any broadband infrastructure that does not connect directly to an end-user location, including an anchor institution; (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act ).63 Approving the funding for middle-mile infrastructure reduces the cost of rural community members while simultaneously ensuring that the anchor institutions which are essential to rural life have broadband. Federal and state regulations can greatly impact connecting the middle-mile with the last-mile assists in providing affordable broadband services to unserved areas.
Workforce development: Rural broadband offers significant opportunities to live and work in rural communities, creating and maintaining jobs that sometimes pay higher than local wages. Additionally, rural broadband will require a trained workforce to deploy broadband in each state, creating job opportunities in rural and remote communities. Policy should include workforce development training to successfully and correctly deploy broadband.
Change matching grant requirements for rural communities: Many funding programs often require matching funds that rural communities simply do not have. To deploy grant funding, change requirements for matching funds to accommodate the funding challenges that rural communities will face.
State framework: Policies should provide a framework for states to determine the application process in a fair and straightforward manner. There should not be a blanket prioritization and strategies for states, each state is unique, and the counties within each state may vary considerably in broadband availability, population, geography, or demographics. This is especially true for very rural counties, which may not have any or very limited broadband. As more and more states establish a broadband office, it is essential for local, state, and federal programs and resources to understand the challenges and opportunities that successful broadband deployment can bring to rural America. The BEAD Program64 provides $42.45 billion to expand high-speed internet access by funding planning, infrastructure deployment and adoption programs in all 50 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands