Why is Rural Internet Access Still a Problem?

Rural Internet Access
Rural Internet Access

Internet availability is important for all facets of life, whether social, economic, or political. Now that the corona virus pandemic has introduced a ‘new normal’, you cannot continue working, learning, interacting, and growing without the support of a healthy internet connection. Though network technology has prospered greatly since the start of the decade, its widespread accessibility is still a problem. In other words, around 19 million Americans lack basic internet facilities, which the rest of the nation continues to enjoy, according to the Federal Communications Commission’s Eighth Broadband Progress Report. What’s worse if that out of those 19 million people, 14.5 million happen to reside in the outskirts of cities, where network service remains abysmal.

This brings us to the topic in question: Why is rural broadband access still a problem in 2020? What are the reasons behind this unequal distribution? And what are the possible solutions for closing the urban-rural digital divide? Let’s find out.

Definition of ‘Broadband’

It is not a matter of ‘what is broadband’, but of ‘who defines it’. In this case, it is the Federal Communications Commission, which sets the required speed threshold for internet service providers to follow. The thing about this threshold is that it is incredibly outdated. Back in the early 2000s, any connection that could carry data at a speed of 200 Kbps in at least one direction came under the title of ‘broadband’. Then, in 2010, the definition changed to 4 Mbps minimum downstream and 1 Mbps minimum upstream. Finally, the year 2015 brought an upgrade in the speed threshold, with 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload, which lives on to this day.

This 25/3 Mbps speed requirement might have been equivalent to the progress of network technology in that era, but now, the times have changed drastically. We have mind-blowing plans and service deals like Cox internet packages, offering internet speeds up to 1 Gig in selective markets. 1 Gig! Yet, the basic definition of broadband has remained frozen at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speed. What is the aftermath? ISPs comply with the archaic definition of broadband that has been laid down by the FCC, and supply internet speeds accordingly. No more, maybe less – wherever it suits them.

As a result, rural residents receive up to 25 Mbps download power on average, riddled with data caps, which is far from enough to meet their everyday needs, especially in these pandemic-stricken days. If the FCC could update the definition of broadband while keeping the current trend of progress in mind, perhaps ISPs would be impelled to follow it and distribute broadband of a higher spectrum. Change needs to begin from the grassroots before we can start talking about investments.

Infrastructure Installation Issues

Rural terrain is incredibly uneven, geographically speaking. Installing fiber optic or next-gen cable network technology throughout the rolling hills and farmlands would demand massive manual labor. On top, rural residents live in random pockets of land here and there, instead of well-knit communities. This makes broadband deployment a huge pain for service providers. Companies have to balance installation costs with expected returns, and the curve only dips when it comes to rural areas, where there are a few potential customers per square mile. Moreover, laying down high-speed internet lines over large distances might risk signal loss. The more a signal has to travel, the less potent it becomes. That is why signal-amplifying devices would also need to be added to the cost, which wouldn’t work out too well for internet service providers that are business entities first, and must keep an eye on the profit.

Thus, the difficult installation and higher infrastructure cost is another reason why rural internet access remains a problem to this day. There may be two ways to fix this. One, ISPs could collaborate with other utility companies and reduce installation costs to a great degree. For example, they could use electricity transmission grids to transfer internet speeds to rural areas. Two, they could request more funds and subsidies from the government and lobby the right departments for a widespread fiber entrenchment on an equal level to the urban development. It all depends on how much they are willing to care for their rural customers.

Making the Dream of Rural Internet Access a Reality

Though the accursed rural-urban divide persists, you might be glad to hear that the chasm is narrowing with each passing year. As per the FCC’s 2020 Broadband Deployment Report, an 85% increase in rural broadband access to fixed terrestrial speeds has been recorded between the years 2016 and 2018. This progress is in part due to the $80 billion investment in network infrastructure and the rise of new internet technologies like 5G and fixed wireless, which shows that the future of rural connectivity may be brighter than it may seem.

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