Two decades into the 21st Century, broadband internet access still falls short of reaching tens of millions of Americans – especially in hilly and remote parts of the rural West. But local initiatives and creative uses of technology are slowly helping close the divide.
File Server Curlew School District
Curlew School in the timber-country hills of far northeastern Washington closed its doors in March to keep students and staff safe from the COVID-19 virus. Since then, the system’s lone school bus has driven by student homes, dropping off days’ worth of school lunches and packets of reading and assignments, and picking up completed work.
Why no Zoom learning? No digital courseware? Curlew has too many students without broadband internet access at home; it is unavailable or unaffordable. After Curlew’s teachers, like April Barreca, the science teacher for middle and high-school students, called students at home and found many disconnected, they knew online classes were a non-starter.
Barreca tried to stay in touch by telephone. “I just gave them my phone number,” she said. “Some do ask me questions on Facebook messenger.” But even though educational links from around the internet were not something she could offer, “the real deficit is harder to pinpoint,” she said. “It’s less about access to information and more about access to me.” Students work hard “if they feel the teacher is supporting them,” she said, but “if they feel like their teacher has abandoned them,” their incentive fizzles. “I feel like I’m out of touch with some kids,” she said.
Internet connections are necessary, but not alone sufficient for online learning. “Remote education is not working,” said John Glenewinkel, superintendent of Curlew Schools. “For the kids, it’s an incredible paradigm shift.… And two-thirds or more of my kids don’t have reliable internet access.” Often their families can’t afford it. More than half the 172 students enrolled in Curlew Schools qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. “You are creating a situation of inequity,” he said.
Two decades into the 21st century, stark stories about life without adequate internet access are common around the rural West. While connectivity reaches many rural centers — like Republic, the county seat in Ferry County — it evaporates within a few miles. Major carriers like AT&T, Verizon and Frontier (now in bankruptcy, with Ziply buying its Northwest territory) support customers in town centers. Left to fill the gaps are rural telecoms, small internet service providers and local cable TV companies. No reliable statistics quantify how many are unserved.
April Barreca’s father, Joe, is a former computer programmer. He started a mapping business at home producing maps showing 911 service territories. His slow internet connection only allowed him to send and receive e-mail, “but I needed aerial photos, which were huge; I’d have to go to town to download them, and town is 20 miles away.”
Betty Buckley is executive director of the Washington Independent Telecommunications Association, which represents 18 small telephone companies in 21 locations in other parts of northeast Washington in areas with less than 20 people per square mile. “By and large our members have fewer than 5,000 customers,” she said. Buckley lives on the northern side of the Colville Indian reservation. She is convinced “I’m going to be the last person served in the state of Washington.”
She boils everything down to a simple question: “Are we going to serve everyone or not?” There are two tiers necessary to establish fiber internet connections: a “middle-mile” build that gets a trunk line to a centrally-located rural hub, allowing other providers to build “last-mile” connections to homes. When homes are scattered over wide areas, creating the last link can be daunting. “The last two percent of those unserved are going to be stunningly expensive,” Buckley said.
Getting a fiber-optic line to her house, Buckley estimates, “is a $1.6 million build.” She and her nine nearest neighbors are marooned on a digital desert island. “There is nothing, with the possible exception of low-earth-orbit satellites, that’s going to help a situation like ours.”
Even though Washington has 238 internet providers — and a newly created state broadband office to focus on improving state systems, the online magazine Broadband Now reports that 103,000 residents have no access to wired internet. Another 338,000 residents can’t get a wired connection with the now-standard 25 megabits-per-second download speeds and three mps upload speeds.
“If you don’t have connectivity you don’t have a future of work and you don’t have a future of learning.” said Gary A. Bolles, a co-founder of the U.S. Broadband Coalition. At a May webinar of the advocacy group California Forward, Martha Guzman Aceves, a member of California’s Public Utility Commission, agreed. “Now more than ever we have the realization across our society that broadband is a basic utility,” she said. “It’s an essential service.”
Nationwide, the Federal Communications Commission reports that 21 million Americans lack broadband access. But it acknowledges the figure is a significant undercount; there are no reliable statistics on the number unserved. Until last year, companies getting FCC grants, like AT&T, CenturyLink and Frontier, could report an entire census block as fully served if a single customer had broadband access (census blocks vary in size from less than an acre to multiple square miles). As for internet-deficient Ferry County? FCC maps show the entire county has access to broadband, which doesn’t reflect the reality on the ground.
In reality, about 40 million people in the country “can’t get 25/3 at any price,” said Chris Mitchell, a broadband expert at Minnesota’s Institute for Local Self-Reliance, citing preferred minimum speeds for downloads and uploads. “Right now, the federal government is in the odd situation in which it doesn’t know where broadband is – or isn’t,” the FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel agreed. In an April Brookings Institution webinar, she said, “The maps … describing where broadband is and is not in this country radically overstate service. If we don’t fix those maps, we’re not going to be able to manage this problem.”
The web of obstacles to rural broadband is being untangled in some areas, like parts of Utah and a collection of small Indian reservations in southern California where broadband access has steadily increased. Bolles, now chair for Singularity University’s Future of Work program, said, a “rural county needs a technology sherpa — somebody who can step up to help navigate this…. You’re trying to reach a lot of places. But plains present different problems than hilly country.” Indeed, in hilly Ferry County, the process is still at an early stage.
As technology has advanced and the demand has grown for video streams for teleconferencing, telemedicine, and binge-watching, the Federal Communications Commission has steadily raised the threshold for what it defines as “high-speed” broadband internet service. Since 2019, 25 megabits per second download and 4 megabits up has been the FCC’s target. Most delivery technologies have kept pace, with fiber and cable-based broadband pushing into 1,000 mpbs territory; so, too is the much-hyped mobile wireless technology called “5G.” But the highest speed services are poorly distributed and generally concentrated in affluent communities and big-city downtown business districts.
Across the West, millions of people in rural areas and on Native reservations are in Betty Buckley’s situation – digital desert islands – despite tens of billions of dollars in federal grants and loans dating back to the 1990s. Rural broadband grants were part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, primarily through the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service and the FCC. That agency has supplemented its earlier grants with a $20.4 billion fund which will be auctioned off to providers to expand rural service.
Lack of broadband has an economic cost. From 2010 to 2018, it contributed to a quarter of the population and job loss in rural America, calculates Steve Ross. Ross was formerly an associate professor of practice at Columbia University's School of Journalism, focused on data journalism; he now is editor at large of the trade magazine Broadband Communities.
Will Rinehart, a research fellow at Utah State University, isn’t so sure. He questions whether rural residents simply lack access, or whether they lack real interest. “Economic development happens pretty quickly after electrification,” he said, “and not as quickly after broadband development.” His 2017 article for American Action Forum noted, “Availability and adoption are two completely different concepts. For people to benefit from the internet, they need to use it.”
Access is required first. The obstacles facing would-be service providers are threefold: legal, technical and financial. Broadband Now reports that laws in 22 states throttle municipalities seeking to use public resources — like bonding authority — to build broadband. That way, incumbent providers, often large corporations, are protected from a new kind of competition. As Martha Guzman Aceves said, “Providers provide service where it makes economic sense…. The market drives where they invest.” The low number of potential rural subscribers seem a less lucrative option, so providers prefer to put infrastructure in densely populated areas.
“We haven’t really tried to solve the problem in the sense of actually focusing first on what is the best way to connect rural America,” Chris Mitchell said. “Most FCC programs have been about what the big phone companies want to do, not focused on what is best for communities.” James Baller, a lawyer who heads the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, believes, “Local communities are perfectly capable and best situated to understand their own needs and wise about how to achieve them. They should not be restrained from doing so.”
For years, a publicly supported Utah broadband consortium’s financial problems were held up as a cautionary example supporting state prohibitions. Now the company’s success has turned that argument on its head. Despite state prohibitions on publicly-financed retail broadband, this consortium, a wholesale provider called the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency (or UTOPIA), was permitted to work with support from willing municipalities to run last-mile fiber to 110,000 households in 11 cities like Orem, a small city that is a technology hub.
The system was controversial – vigorously opposed by the Utah Taxpayers Association - and its problematic rollout apparently left partner municipalities with large debts and inadequate revenue to cover them. About seven years ago, new management turned things around financially. Private companies now use UTOPIA connections to reach customers in these towns; they pay for this service. UTOPIA showed it could earn enough revenue to eventually let municipalities pay off the debt from the original fiber installation.
“Even though the network operates in a state where local communities face barriers to local authority, the need for better connectivity has driven the success of the open access network,” the Institute for Local Self-Reliance reported.
“The nice thing is we’ve got 30 companies benefiting from open-access infrastructure,” Roger Timmerman, UTOPIA’s chief executive, told a June webinar of the online magazine Broadband Breakfast. “We get revenue from all of those.” He added that last-mile service “is where it’s at for us... There’s a lot of fiber in cities that doesn’t reach end users. Until you do the last-mile construction, you aren’t meeting the needs of communities.”
According to the website Broadband Now, laws in 22 U.S. states prevent municipalities from using public resources to build retail broadband service. Despite the use of legal obstacles ranging from: barring public options if a minimum level of private service exists; prohibiting direct sale to consumers; population caps; and laws barring bond issues to raise funds; they tally over 300 municipal networks providing service nationwide.
The debate over allowing publicly supported networks continues in states like Washington. But another management structure, focused on companies established about a century ago to provide rural electric and telephone service, has proven its effectiveness from North Dakota to Colorado. The 1936 Rural Electrification Act provided loans to support homegrown local cooperatives that put up wires and charged residents affordable amounts. Some have successfully moved into the broadband world.
A March Western Governors Association webinar focused on rural electrical cooperatives’ success. Brian O’Hare, senior director of regulatory issues at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, said his members are well-placed to solve technical and financial issues: “they are more interested in making sure their community is served than getting a return on their investment as quickly as possible.”
Seth Arndorfer, chief executive of the Dakota Carrier Network, a web of 15 independent rural telephone cooperatives, told this webinar that in 1996, his companies combined their existing infrastructure; now 40,000 miles of fiber serves 164,000 subscribers around the state. After the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of North Dakota “we’ve noticed a 30 percent utilization jump,” he said.
He added, “Our business model is to leverage the investment [the coops] made” — some $1.3 billion for fiber connections. “DCN then leases that local loop, the last mile, from our owner company, and we bring it back and put it on our fiber backbone…”
Rural cooperatives bring broadband to southwestern Colorado too. The San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative serves a high-altitude area around the headwaters of the Rio Grande. Focusing on efforts to install fiber connections to individual homes — including remote trout clubs found 10,500 feet high in the Rocky Mountains — its internet company, Ciello serves 3,400 people. Any existing gaps are filled with wireless equipment, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance reported.
Further west, the Delta Montrose Electric Association’s members got impatient and, around 2015, “the community came out in force and pushed us into thinking how we could become an internet service provider,” Kent Blackwell, DMEA’s chief technical officer, told the webinar. The cooperative’s investments have led to hundreds of miles of fiber connections; it has 7,435 broadband subscribers. But it needs economic help to finish: the state contributed $6.5 million, helping pay for 275 miles of fiber to 2,700 homes. “We’ve been able to level the playing field for small towns like Montrose or Delta, Colorado, allowing them an economic foothold on a parity with an urban market,” Blackwell said.
While fiber to individual homes is the surest way to ensure good high-speed service, there are places, like Betty Buckley’s house in north Ferry County, which are physically and economically out of reach. But some wireless options are not dramatically inferior.
“Each community will be different,” said Edyael Casaperalta, founder of Casperalta Law, a Denver firm representing indigenous peoples and nonprofits in telecommunications matters. “A huge component to be able to connect a rural area is who is pushing for it. … You need to have a company willing to invest, local officials not erecting barriers to investment, and technology” that works.
Matthew Rantanen is a sherpa for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association, a group of 20 federally recognized tribes in southern California including the Cahuilla Band of Mission Indians, the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians and the Campo Band of Kumeyaay. Rantanen was a web designer at an online greeting-card company, bluemountain.com, before the tribes made him their director of technology.
In 2002, he and his team got a subsidy of about $1 million from the FCC’s E-Rate program supporting schools and libraries. Then he piggybacked on a network design from U.C. San Diego called a High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network (HPWREN). Their first attempt to connect tribal homes, using a wireless technology called mesh networking, failed. So they moved to a hub-and-spoke model for microwave transmissions, setting up 23 towers that send signals directly to about 400 homes — 18 percent of the 2,200 within reach. The base $35 monthly cost to tie into the Tribal Digital Village is still out of reach for many; the tribal unemployment rate averages 55 percent.
Some local hurdles were unique. Rantanen found out the hard way that cows like to scratch their backs: scratching toppled some towers. A staff of five maintains the towers — which means knowing how to get there over dirt roads in 115-degree heat, pour cement, climb towers, and fix the solar panels that power the system.
With internet available, Native students have more access to education. In 2001, before Rantanen started his work, 26 tribal students graduated from local high schools. Last year, with more access to sites like Khan Academy, 147 graduated.
Passed over no more? TV Association of Republic
Ferry County’s terrain has parallel issues of distance and angular topography, daunting obstacles to fiber installation. But two other wireless options are on the horizon. Literally on the horizon, in the case of one: a chain of satellites in low earth orbit, close enough that, ideally, there won’t be significant lag time, or latency, between the transmission of a signal and its arrival at a receiver. This satellite solution, known in the broadband world as “LEO’s,” is being created by, among others, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX. It has put 422 satellites into orbit about 200 miles above the earth’s surface — as compared to the 22,000-mile distance of conventional telecommunications satellites.
Can low-orbiting satellites effectively get broadband to that last two percent? Greg Rosston, a senior fellow and the director of Stanford University’s Public Policy program, said, “If Elon Musk’s stuff works, then we should be able to do it. But I don’t know if it’s going to work.” A recent FCC report highlighted doubts that the latency problems of low-earth-orbit options like Musk’s Starlink could be overcome.
One wireless technology contemplated for Ferry County uses signals closer to earth. It’s called “TV white space,” a reference to part of the wireless spectrum awarded to television broadcasters decades ago which is now mostly unused. The original idea, as the federal government parceled out this spectrum, was that the airwaves used by one station should be buffered by unused spectrum between broadcasters. But many of the over-the-air stations left channels unused as they moved to internet streaming, digital broadcasting, or closed up shop.
One sherpa in Ferry County is Trevor Lane, an associate professor of economic and community development at Washington State University and its extension director in Ferry County. Lane is working with a Broadband Action Team formed by the state government to solve the physical and economic obstacles to broadband in Ferry County. He is a big advocate of using TV white space.
A former Navy mechanic, Lane saw TV white space used for internet services in poor countries overseas. “TV white space is phenomenal at shooting through trees and mountains,” he said. Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, whose company has worked to expand rural broadband through its Airband Initiative, agrees. “We expect that TV white spaces and other fixed wireless technologies will ultimately provide the best approach to reach approximately 80 percent of the underserved rural population,” Smith wrote in his 2019 book, “Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age.”
Smith’s worry is having enough spectrum available. “First, we need regulatory certainty to ensure the necessary TV white spaces spectrum remains available. While some of the TV band has been auctioned off and licensed to mobile carriers,” he wrote, “it’s important to ensure that two usable channels remain available to the public for TV white spaces in every market, with more available in rural areas.”
Lane is cobbling together a system in Ferry County. Last year he took Microsoft’s Smith into the remote hills and demonstrated how his jury-rigged system allowed Smith, deep in a mountain forest, to talk wirelessly to people in the county seat of Republic. Microsoft is helping support the build-out of the system; in March the FCC proposed to change its rules governing TV white space to facilitate its use for rural broadband.
Lane is encouraged by pilot projects connecting officers of the Ferry County sheriff’s office, but he believes that the solution for Ferry County will be “a marriage of fiber and wireless technologies.” One essential is laying “middle-mile” fiber in accessible areas — at a cost of more than $20 million — and then shooting out the signals from that fiber using TV white space. An industry executive put the cost of connections at $3,500 for a tower transmitter and $500 to $600 for the receiver antenna and radio; Lane’s equipment has a similar cost but gives access to a cluster of houses.
“A lot of these have to be hybrid solutions,” Chad Rupe, administrator of the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service, told the Western Governors webinar. “We realize in the end we can’t get everyone fiber. Some places are going to have to have satellite technology. But it’s got to link into a tower and a fiber backbone to get the internet information where it needs to go.”
Who pays? In many places it remains unclear what roles federal, state and local governments, companies like Microsoft, smaller internet service providers, ngos, and customers will play. What would they get for their investment? It would allow Joe Barreca to run his mapping company without hoofing it 20 miles to town. It would allow April Barreca to reach her students directly and link them to science websites. It might keep Ferry County’s young people from moving out as soon as they can.
“One of the things that makes us a nation is our ability to communicate with one another. It is the role of the federal government to create that and subsidize that” said Harold Feld, senior vice president of the nonprofit digital advocacy group Public Knowledge. “We have done this for every advance in communication.” Although, he added, “it takes us a while to recognize when something goes from a luxury to a necessity and the private sector is not going to provide it everywhere.”
He concluded, “We talk about internet access. We don’t talk about electric access, or telephone access, or water access…. When you learn to use the internet, you become a participant in the community. That’s different from any other utility.”
Edited by Geoff McGhee.
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