When the pandemic started, the world shut down, leaving millions of people sitting at home with nothing to do but catch up on shows and surf the web.

But between all the Zoom calls, streaming apps, and online shopping excursions, an ongoing problem bubbled to the surface, showing a disparity in how the internet works – and for whom.

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2020 Communications Marketplace Report says broadband internet access is available in 90% of households across the U.S. Fiber internet, faster than dial-up or cable, is available in more than 40% of homes. But despite growing access to faster internet speeds, not everyone has the same service.

The report suggests the gap between rural and urban broadband coverage has been closing, but 22% of rural Americans and nearly 28% of Americans on Tribal lands still didn’t have broadband access in 2018. Delivering high-speed internet access to rural areas is critical to those communities, not just for communication but to improve the lives of the millions of Americans.

How is Rural Broadband Internet Installed?

There are two ways to install broadband internet service lines: above ground or under.

Above Ground Installation

Also known as an aerial installation, workers from telephone or cable companies, electric utilities or cooperatives, or the internet service provider (ISP) will attach lines to telephone poles.

On occasion, transformers or other existing lines will need to be moved. When that happens, many states allow a single approved contractor to relocate assets on behalf of every entity or utility involved. This is called a “one-touch make-ready” policy.

Underground Installation

During underground installation, fiber optic or cable lines are run through a conduit to home routers and modems.

These lines are owned by telecoms or other ISPs, and are typically fiber, though DSL lines have historically used copper wire. When the lines are buried, orange tracer wire is used as well to help workers find the fiber optics later and avoid damaging the fragile fiber optic cables.

By including a locating wire, crews can avoid accidental damage to the fiber optic cable during a dig and can quickly find the line when additional fiber cables or repairs are needed.

Other High-Speed Internet Options

If installing miles of cable isn’t feasible or cost-effective, new technology could help.

Unlike aerial and underground installations, wireless broadband doesn’t rely on physical cables to get the job done. Instead, it connects users to nearby cell towers, allowing them to connect to the country’s growing service map. When users connect to a wireless broadband network, the service is honed into their location, unlike a mobile device that bounces from tower to tower to maintain a strong signal.

If wireless broadband isn’t available, satellite services can provide rural internet access. Satellite service is great for remote areas where other services can’t penetrate but has slower upload and download speeds than other internet types.

The Case for More Broadband

Although COVID thrust the issue into the spotlight, rural communities have pushed for increased internet access for years.

The world is digital, and those who don’t have broadband service will fall behind. In essence, more availability means a smaller digital divide.

More Educational Opportunities

When rural kids have access to the same online resources as their suburban and urban peers, they have an equal opportunity to succeed.

Better internet access limits interruptions to their education, including driving to areas where Wi-Fi or broadband is available. It also makes it easier for kids and adults to attend classes and find resources from home, allowing them to participate and learn remotely.

Better Healthcare

Rural communities often don’t have the same in-person access to doctors and specialists. Better internet access closes the gap.

Telemedicine allows patients to meet with their doctors without driving long distances or taking hours out of their day for a routine visit. As a result, patients save valuable time and money while still getting the care they need.

Digital healthcare visits also address the critical healthcare desert problem plaguing many rural communities.

Stronger Economy

The internet makes a big world seem small, no matter where you are.

Rural homeowners can find real-time data to help make agricultural decisions, discover new markets, and stay up-to-date with operations. Better technology can also improve supply chains, increase yields, and determine what conditions may affect or improve production and profits.

Better Data

Improved broadband access lets people find, generate, and track data, making it easier to answer questions, learn new things, and stay in the loop.

From news and politics to homework help and continuing education, faster internet speeds help people learn more, be engaged, and stay informed.

The Transition from 4G LTE to 5G

Copper is an incredible conductor but doesn’t always carry signals as quickly as fiber optic cables.

Fiber technology has a much higher bandwidth than copper, is more reliable, and has faster download and upload speeds. It also has fewer interference issues and is more resistant to moisture and temperature changes than copper telephone wire.

If you’re unfamiliar, 5G technology is the fifth generation of wireless and the current network used with new smartphones. Unlike the 4G LTE network, which is fast and allows for streaming, gaming, and communication, it isn’t quite capable of sustaining millions of smartphones simultaneously using data.

5G speeds are much faster than previous iterations, and the 5G network expands far past phones into the home internet space.

What’s the Plan for Increasing Broadband Access?

Bringing reliable, fast internet to every person in America is noble, but it’s also expensive and challenging.

Smaller populations mean fewer customers to service, raising the cost of installing broadband. Income limitations also come into play, as does the age of the people served by the new lines. Rural areas are sometimes home to older residents who may not see the need for fast internet or can pay more for the service once installed.

Funding is also occasionally difficult for utilities and ISPs to obtain, creating added hurdles for future expansion.

Good News in Congress

Luckily, Congress is looking at the issue and pushing for more help for rural communities.

The Reforming Broadband Connectivity Act is a bipartisan bill two years in the making and is now with the House’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. According to the bill’s summary, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would improve and revamp its Universal Service Fund to increase telecom service access.

The Universal Service Fund has traditionally been tied to phone service, but emerging technologies could force the fund to grow and adapt.

Other governmental agencies are also taking notice. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Commerce and Department of Homeland Security recommended states bolster programs that support broadband workforces. Money to pay for the programs would come from a $42 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) fund paid for by the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).

Investments Take Time and Money

There is a definite need for broadband expansion, and most would agree everyone should have access to the latest technology.

The primary blocker affecting implementation is the price tag, though. That said, with enough time, delivering lightning-fast 5G coverage to every corner of the U.S. is possible.

How quickly can change happen? We’re not sure, but we’re laying the groundwork for the next generation of accessibility, and that’s a step in the right direction.

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