Governmental Solutions to the Question of Rural Connectivity

Internet equality is severely lacking in rural areas in the United States, where the price of service costs significantly more than in cities, and where connectivity and speed are much worse. The Federal Communications Commission found that – as of 2018 – less than 70 percent of rural Americans have access to broadband connection. Although the advent of 5G should reduce some of this inequality, finding solutions is still challenging. Here are some examples of effective responses to the lack of internet access in rural America.

In an article discussing the challenge of bringing highspeed broadband to rural Virginia, The Roanoke Times succinctly depicts the central problem with relying on telecom companies to provide adequate services in rural communities.

“It’s hard to blame the telecom companies,” the article reads. “They’re for-profit entities, but that black ink starts turning into red ink if they have to lay miles and miles of fiber across rural America.”

So often, the solutions to the challenge of rural internet access come not from the telecom companies, but from governments or the communities themselves.

For example, the state legislature of Virginia passed a bill that “would allow utilities – such as Dominion Power and Appalachian Power – to install cables that would carry broadband into hard-to-reach areas.”

Another bill would allow localities to “create a ‘service district’ that can contract with internet service providers to extend broadband into underserved areas… this gives local governments a tool to take matters into their own hands.”

In the example of Virginia, which is seeing bipartisan efforts taken to bring all of its residents broadband connectivity, the onus is on the state government to take responsibility where telecoms can’t or won’t. In other instances, municipalities have taken charge.

Take, for example, the case of Tuttle, Oklahoma, which completely lost its internet and cable service after the local telecom provider went bankrupt, becoming the largest city in the United States – with a population of 6,000 – without service. Private telecom providers were concerned about the lack of profit and weren’t interested in providing their services to Tuttle. The only solution for the city, along with other rural Oklahoma communities, was to set up municipal broadband networks.

But while making broadband a public utility might sound like a great solution for plenty of rural communities and under-serviced towns, it isn’t that simple. As Voice of America News (VOA) writes, “At the moment, more than two dozen states have limitations on city-run broadband – from restrictions on parameters to entire bans.” Attitudes against government interference have made this trend pervasive, leaving small towns in the cyber-dust.

However, there are some legislatures that are seeing the error in this.

“Arkansas, for example, passed a law in 2011 stating ‘a government entity may not provide, directly or indirectly, basic local exchange service,’” VOA explains. “Earlier this year, the Arkansas Legislature unanimously voted to repeal that ban.”

Explaining the state’s decision, Arkansas state senator Breanne Davis told Citylab, “We were one of the five states that had the most restrictive laws [on municipal broadband] in the nation, and [ranked] almost last in broadband [access].”

So far, municipally run broadband networks have been a success. In Tuttle, excess revenue is even being directly reinvested into better connectivity for rural residents. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, Mayor Andy Berke enthusiastically promotes the municipal fiber optic network which has “exceeded all expectations.” Berke believes the new network is responsible for the city’s low unemployment rate.

It can be expensive and unrealistic for private telecom providers – even the big-name companies with exorbitant wealth – to create highspeed broadband networks in small towns and rural communities. However, problems arise when a large portion of America’s population is excluded from the ever-increasing amount of services that are exclusively offered online. The onus, then, is on the government – whether it be federal, state or local – to step in and create a solution for its citizens. The equity of quality of life is at stake.