Community Connectivity

April 05, 2023, 1:04pm EDT

American Broadband Access and Adoption

Digitization has become the new normal in today’s world. Industries from health and education to finance and agriculture have evolved technology and services to largely rely on network connection, and broadband has become a necessity, not just a luxury. But despite broad demand, 22.5% of all US households, 27.6 million homes, do not have subscriptions to any form of “broadband” internet service, according to a 2021 report. Compared to the effective 100% of American homes with electricity, we see a gap, as well as progress towards a similar universal experience with broadband.

The broadband gap affects communities from the bottom up, even impacting the national market and infrastructure. Rural adoption rates of broadband at 81% are still 5 points lower than that of urban cities. 39% percent of Americans in rural areas – 23 million people – still do not have access to high-speed internet. Americans on tribal land are even less connected with a low rate of subscription to a high-speed Internet service of 53% – compared to only 4% of Americans in urban areas who lack access to broadband.

Without access, rural areas miss out on both small and large scale infrastructure and market investment, adversely impacting our nation’s ability to offer education and job opportunities equally to all. Researchers have found that higher levels of broadband adoption lead to economic growth, higher incomes and lower unemployment. In 2020, the Federal Communications Commission launched the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund program to bring broadband to areas currently impacted. 

Rural America’s Persistent and Enduring Digital Divide

Rural communities are experiencing the digital divide at an increasing rate as technology becomes more integrated and essential to our working world. In addition to educational institutions and healthcare services becoming dependent on connectivity throughout the pandemic, we see larger corporations everywhere adopting a digital lifestyle. Rural communities are further disadvantaged with lower digital literacy; thus both cost effectiveness and the community’s current state of accessibility need to be addressed.

In most U.S. households, download speeds are typically at least 100 Mbps and upload speeds 10 Mbps. Rural areas often have 4 Mbps and 1 Mbps download and upload speeds, just the minimum federal standard for service providers. Broadband access means more than just having service for entertainment; the gap adversely impacts the ability and speed to work effectively or access essential information. The FCC plans to implement rules to prevent and penalize digital discrimination and promote equal access to broadband across the country, regardless of income level, ethnicity, race, religion or national origin.

This gap has garnered increasing attention, as more industries are prospecting what rural change can do for the larger economy. Congress recently passed a $42.5 billion rural broadband program as part of a bipartisan infrastructure law. The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond released their Community Scope journal for 2020 detailing how increasing broadband access in rural areas “may further facilitate macroeconomic growth by accelerating the distribution of ideas and information, fostering competition for and development of new products and processes, and facilitating the introduction of new work practices, entrepreneurial activities and improved job matching.” Propelling rural communities to success also benefits the larger market as individuals connect to more opportunities and small businesses compete more effectively with their digital savvy and connected peers.

Even education suffers from the technological divide. An estimated 15 million elementary and secondary students across the country lack adequate internet access, speed or simply do not have a device at home. During the pandemic many education systems switched to depend exclusively on remote connectivity, and rural educators were put in a position to maintain virtual academic instruction with low broadband and digital access rates. A study done throughout rural communities in Ohio and New York found districts were mostly able to arrange access to devices for their students, but in some districts, over 30% of students had no internet access at home at all.

The Case for Improved Rural Connectivity

Broadband adoption in rural communities correlates directly with increased job and population growth, higher rates of new business formation, higher home values and lower unemployment rates. But balancing the cost with this goal of market growth leaves government organizations, companies and local community advocates to identify solutions that are both cost-effective and reliable for consumers. To effect real change, both accessibility and the current state of the community need to be considered. 

Despite the obstacles on the part of the FCC to make widespread connectivity a reality, some companies are taking action to close the gap. In 2021 Land O’Lakes Inc. led a group of partners to form the American Connection Corps with the mission of creating a scalable, successful model for economic development – demonstrating one more way to make an impact in communities critical to our success as a nation. “Connected communities are more competitive, and this program brings much-needed assistance to address connectivity issues in communities that are not connected today,” commented Tina May, Land O’Lakes, Inc. Chief of Staff to the CEO and Vice President for Rural Services. This initiative distributed laptops, conducted workshops and led 2,000 households in speed mapping initiatives to increase broadband access. 

The Georgia-based Partnership for Inclusive Innovation (Partnership) works to advance initiatives that promote innovation, opportunity and shared economic success. One such program is with the City of Concord, Georgia. As infrastructure investments are often driven by an intersection of cost and functionality, Georgia Tech researchers Ada Gavrilovska and Ellen Zegura are working with the City of Concord to analyze technologies for improving connectivity in the county, including measuring and comparing broadband options available to consumers and identifying the most reliable connectivity at different locations in the city. This research and exploration into the City of Concord promotes their innovative Wireless Internet Service Provider model, increases accessibility of connectivity and helps meet the needs of local consumers. The analysis of data from the City of Concord will also yield invaluable data and drive change from the ground up as more rural areas are engaged.

Lasting Solutions, Not Stopgaps

When industry service providers respond to calls to fix rural broadband, many don’t consider the communities themselves and seek low cost, quick fixes, that are merely band aids on a bigger issue. Le Flore County garnered much attention in the mission to expand access and went through multiple rounds of programming to bridge the access gap as a part of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund by 2020. Instead of running a fiber cable near residential areas that would provide faster download speeds, the project placed the cable near the highway, ultimately just meeting federal upload and download speeds in letter, if not in spirit. As the problem was merely diluted, rather than solved, low service speeds persisted, and Le Flore County continued to fall behind. Le Flore County is now implementing new measures to bring fiber optic service closer to the residential and commercial areas where the community can actually access it.

In another Partnership for Inclusive Innovation project in Spalding County, County Manager Steve Ledbetter and Communications Systems Manager, Mike Windham hope to make wireless broadband available to the community at low cost by leveraging existing county assets and locations. The Partnership’s Smart Community Corps interns helped develop dashboards and analytics to assess the viability of delivery speed, delivery cost, throughput, consumer cost, uptime, maintenance cost/time and customer feedback. Analysis of the project will shed new light on broadband deployment in rural parts of the state and provide critical data for future community development.

A Future of Equitable Rural Broadband Access

What starts with small scale community impact expands to build a larger economic growth opportunity. Broadband access goes beyond fast Internet. It influences communities to progress to new levels of security and innovation that can keep up with, and benefit, national scale and standards.

In rural communities, distances between homes and emergency services are larger, making response time even more important. Without proper service and connection, the health and safety of communities remain at risk. Columbus Consolidated Government utilized Georgia Smart, an award-winning program run by the Partnership to develop smart technologies for their Uptown district to promote safety, security and an intelligent transportation system through a coalition for data sharing and infrastructure improvement. As the first consolidated government in the state and a planned city, these changes were an effort to reduce fire and public safety response times. Columbus and Georgia Tech researchers John Taylor and Neda Mohammadi used the existing fiber optics infrastructure and public wireless access for the prototyping of two IoT (Internet of Things) devices capable of gathering and relaying data for modeling. As a result, Columbus was able to provide faster, more accurate public safety service and become a more secure location for its constituents. 

Meeting Communities Where They Are

Communities need solutions tailored to the current state of their technology architecture and infrastructure. The City of Woodbury, a Partnership project city with a population of 1200, became the first city to be declared “Broadband Ready” by the Department of Community Affairs. As a publicly-owned wireless internet service provider (WISP) network as of 2020, Woodbury broadband serves more than 50 households and businesses with wireless internet access both within city limits and in neighboring areas. The transformed city functionality now serves as a model to assist other communities in reaching their full potential throughout the state. 

In addition to their work with the City of Concord, Georgia Tech researchers Gavrilovska and Zegura are also working with the City of Woodbury on underlying research to improve and expand their network, while documenting the process as a model for other Georgia communities. Woodbury is in the process of planning the Meriwether County AgTech Center for Innovation (MACI) which will inspire the next generation of technological advancements and innovation across the state of Georgia, and beyond.

At its root, the problem of broadband availability is about access to information. Without the ability to find news, contact and connect with others or simply work efficiently, generations of individuals miss out on opportunities for growth solely based on their geographical location. In an effort to increase information access, Macon-Bibb county is building a foundation for a smart kiosk system to integrate existing mobile applications and smart solutions. This system expands the smart solutions to be accessible to all and provide upgraded services. 

“SmartNeighborhoodsMBC as part of our overall SmarterTogetherMBC Smart City strategy provides support for each of our governing principles for Effective Government and Governance. SmartNeighborhoodsMBC promotes equitable access to technology in underserved and at-risk neighborhoods,” noted Dr. Keith Moffett, Macon-Bibb County Manager. This project ultimately expands upon progress updates already in place, and impacts the larger community within the county’s budget and enriches the community experience. Residents can now benefit from Institutions of higher learning and become more involved in neighborhood improvement. 

Rural health connectivity is another challenge. Health services have become digitized and even small providers (4 or fewer clinicians) depend on large healthcare providers purchasing broadband. This has resulted in an estimated 7 percent of service providers in rural areas lacking adequate broadband connectivity access. Facing these challenges, Kids’-Doc-on-Wheels is creating new ways for children in rural communities to access comprehensive medical and behavioral health services through school based healthcare. Kids’-Doc-on-Wheels’ iCare School-based Telemedicine Clinic creates an integrated health care system for the community that includes the services of a community clinician, children’s hospital and community medical school programs. With their program, kids who would otherwise miss out on important health check-ins, or would have to miss school to receive them, are able to have access in a central location where broadband reaches and their health is prioritized.

Rural Broadband Access: Advancing Equity and Economic Progress

Rural broadband access is certainly not a new problem, and the effects it can have on a national scale remain profound. One study of the economic impacts of broadband infrastructure expansion estimated expanding adoption of rural broadband across the United States by even 20 percent would yield $43.8 billion in economic benefit over 15 years. This kind of impact starts at the local level, and with upgraded access market communications improve, entrepreneurship blooms and both employers and workers enjoy needed levels of access and opportunity. Though most broadband upgrades will take large subsidies, the impact on increased GDP makes the investment more than pay off.

Economically, the impact translates down to the local level. Two studies from Purdue University’s Center for Regional Development estimated the economic impacts of expanding broadband in the areas served by seven rural electrical cooperatives in Indiana and compared it to the cost of expansion. From this research, they found that every dollar spent towards improving access to broadband resulted in three or four dollars of economic benefits.

Improving digital literacy in agriculture also yields direct financial benefits. The University of Georgia, Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College and agriculture stakeholders have developed and submitted a US Department of Agriculture proposal for the “Farm of the Future” to address the need to improve digital literacy by directing efforts towards making small to mid-sized farms environmentally sound, socially acceptable and economically viable. If funded, this program will help fund agricultural technologies to advance sustainable and economically beneficial farms. With this, the Partnership is currently funding research that supports data literacy for small and mid-sized producers. This development will create a competitive landscape for future funding and research in areas like those the Partnership is focused on that are often not included in such opportunities.

Some still think increasing broadband in rural America where fewer individuals and businesses are located is a suboptimal allocation of resources. But rural broadband access remains both an issue of fundamental equity and improved outcomes. From upgrading technology and finding alternatives that work for the communities, investing in improved rural broadband access can start small, but will ultimately create a profound return on investment and impact on the national and global market.

 

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