Billions to Connect Everyone to High-Speed ​​Internet May Still Be Insufficient

By | September 19, 2023

Along far southeastern Oklahoma, where sprawling cattle ranches and empty stores dot the landscape, the lack of high-speed Internet service has become a daily frustration for residents.

Wanda Finley, a fourth-grade teacher in Sawyer, Oklahoma, said the satellite service at her home was often too slow to use and would sometimes be out of service for days. She can’t schedule doctor appointments, request prescription refills or pay her bills online until she gets to work. Almost every weekend, she drives about 40 minutes to school to prepare her weekly lesson plan, because it can take a few minutes for a single web page to load at home.

I hope that changes,” said Finley, 60, sitting in her home on a recent afternoon.

If President Biden gets his way, Finley and his neighbors will benefit from a $42.5 billion program to expand fast internet access across the country. The funding, which was included in the 2021 infrastructure law, is part of an initiative that has big ambitions: providing “affordable and reliable high-speed internet access” to every home and business by 2030.

The effort aims to close the “digital divide” by ensuring that all Americans can connect to fast internet, given the critical role it plays in economic opportunity, education, healthcare and other areas. The Biden administration has also invested more than $22 billion in other programs to build broadband networks and reduce the cost of Internet bills.

The lack of broadband infrastructure is particularly problematic in rural areas, where Internet service is often unavailable or limited. Approximately 24 percent of Americans in rural areas lack high-speed Internet service, as defined by the new program, compared to 1.7 percent in urban areas. Research has shown that internet connectivity can fuel economic growth in rural areas, helping to create jobs, attract workers and increase home values.

Attempts to bring broadband to everyone are not new: the federal government has already pumped billions into efforts that have had mixed results. Biden administration officials said the new program, along with other federal and state funding, would be enough to finally reach everyone who doesn’t have access to high-speed internet.

But some state officials and industry analysts remain cautious and have raised concerns about whether the funds will achieve all of the administration’s goals.

In part, this is due to the high cost of deploying broadband infrastructure in rural and sparsely populated areas. It can be expensive to install fiber optic cables when homes are spread out and terrain challenges make digging the ground difficult. Labor shortages could further increase construction costs and delay projects.

There are 8.5 million “unserved” locations and 3.6 million “underserved” locations nationwide, according to data from the Federal Communications Commission. Each state received a minimum of $100 million from the $42.5 billion package, plus additional funds based on the number of unserved locations. States must first address areas that have no or insufficient Internet service, and can then use funds to build in underserved areas. The remaining funds can be used on community institutions and then on issues such as accessibility.

The success of the initiative is expected to vary between states. Some, like Louisiana and Virginia, have already said they plan to cover all unserved and underserved locations. Others expressed more skepticism about the scope of the funding.

Edyn Rolls, Oklahoma’s director of broadband strategy, said the state, with its large rural population, is unlikely to have enough funds to reach all underserved locations, and covering all unserved areas could be a challenge.

State officials said recent versions of the FCC’s map showing available Internet service across the country have improved, but it may still be an exaggerated coverage. Local governments and providers could challenge existing data, but state allocations are already set, meaning funds would have to be expanded further if authorities identified more locations that lack high-speed service.

Rolls said there was a “real potential” that such a scenario could develop, adding that officials have heard from residents that there is “definitely overservice.” And while she said fiber would be a better long-term investment, a combination of technologies would have to be implemented to reach all unserved locations.

Even with grants, companies may not find it profitable to build everywhere. Robert Osborn, director of California’s communications division, said some locations in the state, which is geographically diverse with large, hard-to-reach areas, are unlikely to attract any interest from providers. To attract bidders, Osborn said the state could in some cases reduce the requirement that vendors cover at least 25% of a project’s price, but that risks diverting money from other projects.

“It’s not as simple as giving money to a big Internet service provider and saying, ‘Go build there,’” Osborn said.

Evan Feinman, director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s $42.5 billion program, said officials were confident that federal and state funds would be enough to cover all unserved and underserved locations, meaning that every American would have access to an internet speed of at least 100 megabits per second for downloads and 20 megabits for uploads.

Still, he said some projects could take up to five years to complete and predicted construction wouldn’t begin until late 2024. While he said most locations would receive fiber connections, he expected others would be covered by fixed technology. wireless or satellite.

Satellite is not considered reliable under program rules, but Feinman said some services were better than others and that states could use funds for satellite equipment and services for some remote locations. Starlink, a satellite technology made by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, is considered more reliable, but the hardware costs hundreds of dollars and can take months to clear waiting lists.

The scope of the funding will be important for Americans who have long lacked access to high-speed Internet. Ms. Finley said she wanted to assign homework that involved more online research because it would accelerate the fourth graders’ learning. But many were unable to complete it. Only three of the 20 students in his class have sufficient internet access at home. The rest have no service or can only use their parents’ cell phones.

A few miles away in Fort Towson, Oklahoma, which has about 600 residents, Mayor Tami Barnes said people were constantly complaining about internet speeds, which she called a “huge dampener” on the local economy. On a recent afternoon, the busiest spot in town was the parking lot of a convenience store and gas station. The other two main businesses are a steakhouse and a Dollar General store.

Although Internet bills are a financial burden for many families, Barnes said more residents would likely attend online medical appointments if they had high-speed access because many often travel up to three hours to see specialized doctors.

Other states with low population density, such as Montana, may also face more challenges. In Broadwater County, Mont., where many homes are separated by vast expanses of grassy land and some are located in mountainous areas, residents said the lack of quick service has made it difficult to complete tasks like working from home.

Denise Thompson, 58, who runs a cattle farm with her husband in Townsend, Mont., said she wanted to create a website to ship more beef products, but wasn’t sure how she could operate it from home because she relied on hot phone. place to access the internet and its connection was slow. She hasn’t tried streaming a movie in about a year because it usually gets stuck buffering for minutes.

Your home is in a ravine between two high hills and your closest neighbor is about three miles away, so your only other option is satellite service. Even with the new federal money, Thompson said she is skeptical that she will see more reliable options.

“I really don’t expect that to happen,” she said.

County Commissioner Lindsey Richtmyer said many locations would be classified as underserved but actually receive slower service than reflected on the FCC map. County officials are encouraging residents to take state speed tests in hopes of identifying much of the area as unserved.

Estimates revealed that Montana would need more than $1.2 billion to deploy fiber to all unserved or underserved locations, a shortfall of more than $500 million. Misty Ann Giles, director of the Montana Department of Administration, said it would take a combination of technologies to reach everyone because deploying fiber could cost the state up to $300,000 in some locations.

“Obviously, more money would have been appreciated,” she said. “But we’ll figure it out and make it work.”

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