There’s a high likelihood you are reading this story from a DSL internet connection somewhere in rural America. And if you’re like the nearly 47 million households in the U.S. that don’t have access to broadband-speed internet, you already know that slow internet is more than just an inconvenience. It’s holding rural American back.
But there may be a better, more reliably-connected reality in the near future. In his speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation Annual Convention last week, President Donald J. Trump signed the Presidential Executive Order on Streamlining and Expediting Requests to Locate Broadband Facilities in Rural America. The order came on recommendation from the Agriculture and Rural Prosperity Task Force the president commissioned last April, and is touted as a promise that this administration hasn’t forgotten rural America.
“The Task force heard from farmers that broadband internet access is an issue of vital concern to their communities and businesses,” the President said. “I will take the first step to expand access to broadband internet in rural America, so you can compete on a level playing field, which you were not able to do. Not fair.”
This executive order, along with the memorandum for the secretary of the interior, Supporting Broadband Tower Facilities in Rural America on Federal Properties Managed by the Department of the Interior, was a signal to rural America that the gap in technology and communications infrastructure between the coasts and the Midwest may begin to narrow.
Access to technology and reliable internet continues to be an issue holding back rural America. The Federal Communications Commission defines “broadband” as an internet connection with minimum download speeds of 25Mbps (megabits per second). This could be through any form of internet service – DSL, fiber, cable or satellite.
According to a 2016 FCC report on the status of internet access, 47% of households across the country had broadband internet connection. 29 states fell below that average, and the worst speeds were all in rural states such as Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Mississippi, Ohio and Oklahoma.
Percentage of Households with Minimum Broadband Connection
States in blue have a greater percentage of households with internet connections at or above the minimum download speeds to be considered "broadband."
While these numbers may not mean much to many Americans, that gap means a significant difference in online services, educational and economic opportunities.
As the president’s executive order states, the connectivity gap “hinders the ability of rural American communities to increase economic prosperity; attract new businesses; enhance job growth; extend the reach of affordable, high-quality healthcare; enrich student learning with digital tools; and facilitate access to the digital marketplace.”
The growth of online retailers continues to force traditional brick and mortar stores to shutter locations, which many times are in smaller communities. But online shopping is still difficult for many rural Americans. 83 Rural hospitals have closed since 2010, according to research from the University of North Carolina. But telemedicine is unrealistic without dependable internet connections. Job opportunities in more connected urban centers continue to pull young talent out of rural communities.
The Reality of the Divide
According to the USDA NASS’s August 2017 Farm Computer Usage and Ownership report, computer usage amongst farmers has grown in the last decade, though only 47% say they use a computer to conduct farm business. That is despite 71% reporting they have access to a computer and the internet.
Connection speeds were not recorded in that study, but the majority of farmers said they connected via DSL (29%) and satellite (21%). The FCC says averages speeds of these providers are barely more than 10Mbps – far from the bare minimum to be classified as broadband. Slow internet speeds would contribute to why only 23% of farmers say they’ve purchased inputs online, only 18% have done any marketing online and 44% of farmers nationwide said they conducted any business via the internet.
The challenge for many rural communities is a lack of choice when it comes to their internet provider and technology. Even if they wanted a faster, more reliable service than DSL, their options are limited.
Zachary Cikanek, national spokesperson for Connect Americans Now, a group dedicated to bringing faster internet connectivity to rural America, told AgriTalk’s Clinton Griffiths that his organization is working with the FCC to explore other ways to bring connectivity to the more remote parts of America. One solution is to repurpose TV “whitespace” - bandwidth that’s been vacant since 2009, when all TV signals were converted from analog to digital.
“When you’re talking about a community that’s more isolated or more remote than your standard community, that means you have to be a little more creative when it comes to connectivity,” said Cikanek. “That’s where things like the television white spaces come into play. For about 80% of the rural population, that technology is the most cost effective.”
He says now that the federal government is signaling a concerted investment in rural broadband, the private sector will be more likely to expand into more remote markets.
“What they’re looking for is both regulatory certainty and the development of new technologies,” explained Cikanek.
The Executive Order
That’s where the two documents President Trump signed last week on the Farm Bureau stage come in. Much of these documents use vague language that will be difficult to measure, such as this passage from the executive order:
“It shall therefore be the policy of the executive branch to use all viable tools to accelerate the deployment and adoption of affordable, reliable, modern high-speed broadband connectivity in rural America, including rural homes, farms, small businesses, manufacturing and production sites, tribal communities, transportation systems, and healthcare and education facilities.”
But there are two parts of the president’s order and memorandum that may move the needle on rural connectivity. Both are seemingly bureaucratic in nature, referencing permits and forms. But that may be what it takes. The first is from the executive order:
“The General Services Administration (GSA) develop a common form and master contract for wireless facility sitings on buildings and other property owned by the Federal Government. These documents enable the Federal Government to process wireless facility siting requests more efficiently and will also provide additional predictability regarding the availability of locations for asset installation to installers of wireless broadband facilities.”
One form to rule them all. Up to this point, each department had its own form a vendor would have to fill out in order to gain rights to install a tower or lay cable on a federally-maintained site. Having one form will hopefully streamline the process of gaining access to government land. This was actually mandated in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, but was never implemented by the GSA.
The second comes from the memorandum for the Department of the Interior:
“The Secretary of the Interior shall develop a plan to support rural broadband development and adoption by increasing access to tower facilities and other infrastructure assets managed by the Department of the Interior.”
Despite the noncommittal language of this memo, Ray Starling, Special Assistant to the President for Agriculture, Trade and Food Assistance, says this directive does have teeth.
Starling explains that the memo “directs the Department of Interior to make 20 percent of the assets available in rural areas for rural broadband deployment. This may be as simple as putting an antenna on a building, it may be putting a transmitter on top of a tower that already exists. But this is a relatively easy step to take a government asset that’s already in a rural place, that doesn’t put us at any sort of risk to offer to the public and the private sector, to say ‘Hey, if you’re going to deploy rural broadband in this area, we’re willing to give you space to do that on Department of Interior facilities.’”
Federal lands do cover much of the Western U.S., where internet connectivity is spotty. But it’s not just out west where broadband speeds need to improve.
Four Years to Bridge the Gap
Rural America has survived without high-speed broadband internet. But it hasn’t thrived, and just getting by isn’t enough.
Chris Shaffner, CoBank Vice President for Water and Community Facilities explains that it all boils down to quality of life. For a community whose growth has stagnated since the great recession, rural America deserves to be given the tools to succeed on a level playing field with the rest of the country.
“Technological advancements are changing the way we do everything,” says Shaffner. “It’s the way we educate our children, the way we deliver healthcare, manage energy, ensure public safety, all these things pivot back there.”
Connect Americans Now has a goal of bridging the broadband gap by 2022. Four years is not long to bring up internet speeds that are 10 times slower than the fastest connections in urban areas. But the Trump administration has demonstrated several times over in its first year that it is interested in seeing this part of rural America improve. But until the work begins, it’s all just talk.