With all the headlines about the lack of broadband in rural America, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all small towns are stuck in the dark age of dial-up internet.
The untold story of rural broadband is that over the past seven years, independent broadband networks have proliferated. Today, some of the fastest, most affordable internet in the country can be found in communities like Oskaloosa, Iowa (population:11,500); Powell, Wyoming (6,400); Red Wing, Minnesota (16,500); and Springfield, Vermont (9,000). According to a 2016 Federal Communications Commission data release, more than 1,100 rural fiber broadband providers operate networks of various sizes in some of the most remote parts of America, and more than 230 of those providers offer symmetrical (both download and upload) gigabit speeds.
Rural broadband deployment isn’t easy, but the biggest barriers to better connectivity are not simply geographical. Twenty-one states currently have laws—largely manufactured by telecom industry lobbyists—that impede independent ISPs trying to deploy fiber. Wilson, North Carolina, for example, was one of the first municipalities to build out a network and show that fiber to the home was possible in a rural town. But in response, lobbyists forced through legislation to restrict municipal networks in North Carolina. The absurd result of this was that the Wilson fiber network has actually had to shutter service for some of its customers.
But despite small customer bases and razor-thin (or non-existent) margins, tenacious ISPs across the country are proving that especially when unencumbered by competition-stifling legislation, they can bring world-class internet to their communities.
Just how far and fast is rural gigabit-speed broadband being deployed? My organization, the Center on Rural Innovation, mapped it to learn more. Using the 2016 FCC data again, we found that more than 2,500 rural towns have access to fiber internet, representing more than 8.5 million rural Americans—a million more people than live in the Bay Area, including Silicon Valley. Of those, nearly 3 million have access to full symmetrical gigabit speeds. And though the gap between rural and non-rural fiber internet coverage is significant, it isn’t as overwhelming as many people think. More than 15 percent of rural Americans have access to fiber, compared with approximately 30 percent of people in suburban and urban areas.
Small-town broadband deployment requires collaboration and the blend of ingenuity, creativity, and force of will that's characteristic of rural entrepreneurs who have spent years innovating and problem-solving within the constraints of smaller economies. As a result, models for deployment are as varied as the communities themselves.
Some states, localities, universities, and companies have tapped Broadband Technology Opportunity Program grants, federal infrastructure funds designed to bring backbone connectivity to underserved areas. Many independent telephone companies have used federal universal service funds to build fiber to the most remote parts of their communities. Municipal electric companies, many of which were formed in the early 1900s to bring electricity to rural areas, make for ideal fiber-network operators because they do not have to fight phone companies to string fiber along their poles, aren’t beholden to shareholders, and can take a 50-year outlook on fiber investments. Small towns and rural counties have leveraged their ability to issue inexpensive bonds to build world-class infrastructure. And in some instances, successful businesses in small communities simply built their own ISPs so they could better grow and compete globally for talent.
Does much of rural America still have a broadband problem? You bet it does. And unfortunately, while many of the wireless solutions currently being deployed are better than nothing, they will not provide adequate speeds for long; all rural industries—even agriculture, forestry, and manufacturing—require faster and faster speeds to compete.
The $600 million allocation for rural broadband expansion in the recent omnibus spending bill helps, but our policymakers should accelerate high-speed internet deployment in every way possible. Congress should fund “dig once” processes that enable efficient construction of underground fiber during road construction projects, provide incentives for “climb once” processes that enable efficient fiber construction on private utility poles, and more generously fund construction of this kind of infrastructure just like it does for water and sewer capacity.
And if the 21 states with laws that restrict competition from independent ISPs want to pursue modern economic development strategies to bring greater prosperity to their small towns, it is imperative they overturn those laws and allow their communities to innovate with the full power of broadband.
World-class broadband will not magically create robust digital economy ecosystems in rural America overnight. But fiber internet is the foundation that allows towns to grow their technology sector through entrepreneurship programs, remote workforce cultivation, co-working centers, and STEM curricula in public schools.
With that foundation in place, small towns can finally realize the full promise of the internet by participating in rapidly advancing, data-intensive industries, from virtual reality to blockchain to gene sequencing. Film professionals can collaborate on uncompressed video files with zero latency, architects can ship massive digital files in an instant, and musicians can jam together across hundreds of miles as if in the same room. And without having to endure sky-high real estate prices and soul-crushing traffic jams, digital workers can live in inexpensive, beautiful downtowns with ready access to breathtaking recreation, tight-knit communities, and—thanks to local ISPs and municipalities—access to gigabit-speed broadband.
WIRED Opinion publishes pieces written by outside contributors and represents a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here.