Advanced Internet Technology Is Coming to Rural America
The 2020 global pandemic drove Americans into their homes. More than ever before, people began working, attending school, and shopping from home. Meetings, baby showers, birthday parties, and even happy hours were suddenly being held online. Millions of Americans were able to stay safer at home without losing their jobs thanks to online options.
Except, what if you didn’t have internet access at home? Or what if your home internet connection was too slow to load meetings in real time, or if your data access was metered, as with cell phone data?
Broadband Access Inequality
Internet providers and the federal government have long known about America’s growing internet access divide. A 2016 study revealed that, in rural areas, just 55% of people have access to “broadband” internet. The study defined broadband as connections having minimum speeds of 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream; however, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has since changed the definition of “broadband” to require a minimum speed of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream.
The pandemic highlighted the vast inequality that exists in terms of Americans’ access to high-speed internet. Suddenly, many people with broadband access had an option to work and learn from home, while people with no broadband access were forced to choose between losing their jobs or risking exposure to a deadly virus.
Even before the pandemic, however, the U.S. economy had been moving increasingly online. Today, it’s nearly impossible to participate in our economy or society in a meaningful way without reliable access to high-speed internet. From buying groceries or applying for jobs to filing taxes or seeking medical care, our world is officially internet-based.
Fiber Internet Versus Copper
Traditionally, U.S. internet providers have utilized existing telephone lines and coaxial cable lines to carry data and connect homes. Fiber-optic lines can transmit much more information, at higher speeds, than the older, copper-based systems. While much of America’s main internet infrastructure is now fiber-based, the lines connecting most Americans’ homes to this infrastructure are still copper-based. Consequently, most Americans aren’t currently getting the benefits of fiber internet.
Digging up the existing copper lines that run to individual homes and replacing them with fiber is an overwhelmingly expensive operation that neither the internet companies, FCC, nor most consumers feel is justified at this time. Of course, in rural communities where no lines currently exist, running obsolete copper lines makes little sense.
Rural Development Opportunity Fund
In August 2019, the FCC announced the creation of the Rural Development Opportunity Fund (RDOF). Under the RDOF, the FCC will give internet providers billions of dollars – the largest such transfer in U.S. history – to run fiber cables to homes in rural areas.
On January 30, 2020, the FCC adopted an order establishing the RDOF’s budget and specifying the criteria for identifying eligible rural areas. The order also created a framework for the bidding process for providers seeking an RDOF contract, including the auction schedule, bidding rules, eligibility requirements, review criteria, and oversight measures, among other things.
The RDOF project will be completed in two phases. Phase I will provide up to $16.4 billion in contracts. This phase will target homes and businesses that currently have no broadband access at all, an estimated six million consumers. Bidding for this phase opened on October 22, 2020. In awarding contracts, the FCC is prioritizing high performance speeds and lower provider latency.
Phase II of the RDOF, which is estimated to begin several years from now, will provide a minimum of $4.4 billion in government contracts for building fiber networks in rural areas. Phase II contracts will be aimed at rural areas that currently have partial access to broadband service, as well as Phase-I-eligible areas that weren’t funded during the initial phase.
The RDOF has unprecedented potential to level the playing field for rural Americans by significantly increasing their ability to participate in today’s economy.