Tinahely broadband,” Irish typepad

January 2, 2018; Advanced Television

What do the following organizations have in common: the National Rural Education Association; the American Pain Relief Institute; the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition; and Microsoft? These four, plus a few more groups, have formed a new advocacy coalition called Connect Americans Now (CAN).

Bringing broadband to rural areas that typically lack this common technology is their common interest. Rural residents and providers from many sectors, from education to telemedicine to precision agriculture, feel the impact of a lack of widespread broadband. This link connects to a map showing broadband coverage by county.

Richard Cullen, executive director of CAN, states that “without broadband, millions of students struggle to keep up with their assignments.” CAN’s website states, “34 million Americans lack an affordable and reliable broadband connection. Of these, 23.4 million live in rural areas.”

Why does this matter? It continues to be a challenge in the US (and globally) to provide broadband to rural areas, since Internet providers are concerned with recovering their financial investment in building the necessary networks. Upon comparing the use of tablets, smartphones, and laptop computers across rural, suburban, and urban areas, rural areas consistently show lower usage as a result of limited broadband, according to a PEW Research survey cited on CAN’s website.

CAN’s goal is to organize local coalitions in several states, including Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oregon, and Wisconsin, to educate rural stakeholders regarding long-range wireless broadband using TV white spaces. This process involves allowing unused yet powerful bandwidth on a lower frequency (700 MHz) to be available on an unlicensed basis. According to CAN, wireless signals in this lower range can travel over hills and better penetrate walls, which is very useful for connecting the “last mile” of broadband access. Basically, this combines wired and wireless technology to reach the rural resident.

Broadband impacts rural quality of life in a number of ways:

  • Small Business and Nonprofits: This rural digital divide creates additional obstacles to rural small business wanting to expand their customer base. Many nonprofits in such rural areas are often left to communicate with clients or other stakeholders without reliable internet, by either the nonprofit or the stakeholders.
  • Healthcare: Telemedicine is increasingly being seen as an option for reaching underserved patients and rural hospitals, for connecting with specialists, and for monitoring device. Without reliable broadband, those rural areas that would benefit most are unable to connect.
  • Agriculture: Farmers using remote monitoring equipment are able to increase the efficiency of their irrigation, known as precision agriculture, or to potentially connect to new customer bases.
  • Workforce Development: Rural job seekers can use cloud-based training to improve skills or seek opportunities such as remote teleworking.
  • Government Services: From Social Security to FAFSA, government services are increasing available via online portals, which can be unavailable to rural households.

The goal is to bring affordable and reliable broadband to rural Americans by 2022. CAN will be advocating that the FCC remove some of the regulatory obstacles to ensure that a wider spectrum is available. An interesting side note: It remains to be seen how rescinding net neutrality will specifically impact rural areas and Internet service.—Jeanne Allen