In the early 1930s, only about 10% of rural America had access to electricity. The other 90% still cooked on wood stoves, pumped water by hand, and read and wrote under kerosene lamps. Households had no appliances. Food couldn’t be refrigerated. Modern medical equipment couldn’t be used. News and alerts couldn’t be heard by radio. This enormous divide between electrified urban areas and sparsely-electrified rural ones was crushing to rural citizens, as they found themselves falling further and further behind in a rapidly modernizing society.
Congress eventually passed the Rural Electrification Act, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, which underwrote federal loans to newly-formed electric cooperatives throughout rural America. Millions of Americans gained access to electricity, drastically improving their quality of life. To this day, hundreds of these cooperatives still provide electricity and other services to rural citizens.
Today, we have a similar divide between urban and rural America when it comes to broadband internet service. Roughly one third of rural Americans lack access to high-speed broadband, compared with just 4% of urban Americans. The internet service that many rural Americans can access is slower, has limited capacity for downloading and uploading, and costs more than in urban areas. This prevents millions of Americans from participating in the digital economy, and deprives them of many of the advances in commerce, education, and healthcare that urban America takes for granted.
Just as rural electrification did in the 1930s, closing the broadband connectivity gap today would raise the standard of living for millions of Americans, who would see its impact across the following areas:
High-speed internet connectivity enables rural businesses to grow and thrive. With broadband, these businesses can engage with customers in a global marketplace. Studies show that broadband access leads to increased new businesses in rural areas, and increasing levels of broadband adoption are associated with lower unemployment and increased median household incomes. Further, a Brookings Institution study found that for every one percentage point increase in broadband penetration in a state, employment is projected to increase by 0.2 percent to 0.3 percent per year.
Broadband enriches the educational experience for students by connecting them with a multitude of experts and new concepts. It enables flexible, agile lessons and teaching strategies that can be specifically tailored for individual students. Many schools are replacing textbooks with tablets, but a lack of in-home broadband forces kids to do homework at libraries or other places with access to broadband connections. High-speed connectivity also increases educational accessibility for disabled students and adults pursuing continuing ed.
Broadband allows farmers and ranchers to implement digital technologies, including IoT and smart devices, to enhance operations and improve productivity. Real-time, data-driven insights and automated processes across the agricultural production cycle can improve yields and labor efficiency while increasing revenues through greater market access. They can also optimize conservation and animal care practices.
Broadband has a tremendous impact on the delivery of healthcare services to rural areas. Rural citizens are statistically at higher risk of preventable death from conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and stroke. They often live many miles from the nearest healthcare provider, and even if they are evaluated in person, their healthcare provider may not have access to crucial medical records or AI-based diagnostic technologies. With edge computing and 5G wireless, such information and tools can be accessed in real-time, allowing providers to deliver the best possible care. As a result, healthcare quality and patient outcomes improve, while the potential for poor outcomes, caused by missed diagnoses and human error, decreases.
Telemedicine is also incredibly beneficial to rural areas, greatly expanding treatment access to residents who are often too remote to make regular trips to a healthcare provider. Two-way telemedicine sessions enable rural citizens not only to consult with their own doctor, but also to connect with specialists all over the world.
Broadband is no longer a “nice-to-have”; it is crucial to the success of communities everywhere. Netrality strongly supports improving rural broadband accessibility, as we were able to do when Chariton Valley, northeast Missouri’s premier communications company, selected two of Netrality’s facilities to further broaden their broadband service to rural areas. Chariton Valley and other Netrality ecosystem partners, including Net Vision, Liberty Connect, and Sho-Me Technologies, are actively expanding high-speed internet services in rural Missouri.
Chariton Valley, in particular, is aggressively taking on the connectivity gap, spearheading a first-of-its-kind project to reinvent broadband mapping in Missouri. Currently, broadband mapping is highly inaccurate. Census block-level data collected by the FCC today counts an entire block as “broadband served” if only one home or business has service. Broadband service providers and the FCC are making investment and deployment decisions based on faulty information, using outdated mapping technology adopted almost 20 years ago.
Chariton Valley has created a single database that combines existing FCC data with provider addresses, public building parcel data, satellite imagery and public input to establish a new national mapping reference point. This pilot program has revealed that 38% of homes and businesses counted as “served” under current FCC reporting are not receiving broadband from participating providers. In addition, Chariton Valley compared residential structures in Missouri to Missouri houses in 2011 census bureau data, and found the data did not match 52% of the time. Ideally, Chariton Valley would like to see this pilot applied not only to Missouri, but nationwide.
Although bringing fiber networks to rural areas is more complicated than the electrification initiatives of the 1930s, Netrality remains excited and optimistic about the future of connectivity in rural America. Being part of the ongoing effort to close the connectivity gap and bring the transformative power of broadband to all Americans is a source of pride for all of us at Netrality.