How bad is rural broadband? Today's New America Foundation panel

Just how bad is rural broadband in America, and why?

New American Foundation logoToday I watched a New America Foundation panel discussion on this subject, streamed, called “Fueling the Broadband Economy”.  It was hosted by Michael Calabrese, Director,  Wireless Future Project, Open Technology Institute at New America.

Its premise:

According to a massive data collection by the FCC, 73% of locations are served by a monopoly BDS provider — and 97% by no more than two. This lack of competition poses real problems for the future of the broadband economy, including 5G wireless networks and the Internet of Things.

It was an informative and infuriating panel, a dark portrait of just how screwed are rural Americans.   I’ll share my notes, taken on the fly, and hence imperfect, until I can find a recording.

Interesting terminological note: the panel referred to broadband as “high-capacity broadband lines [or] Business Data Services, or BDS)”.  I think this might be the source.

(For some meta-fun, Fairpoint’s broadband crashed while I was watching this panel and taking these notes.


So I missed a couple of minutes.  “This is too meta”, as my wife observed.)

The panel began with a presentation by Dr. Raul Katz, Director of Strategy Research at Columbia Institute for Tele-Information and President, Telecom Advisory Services.  He outlined recent research on wireless broadband.  Some key notes:

New America Foundation broadband panel

  • How do wireless providers respond to customer dissatisfaction?  If customers are unhappy with service quality, providers just wait for them to leave. No improvement.
  • All rural wireless providers deem 5g to be too expensive.
  • Interesting: when wireless providers encounter competition, and their prices drop *50-60%*.  That’s huge!
  • The lack of competition leads to a degradation of service quality. Flatly stated:”This is bad for rural America.”
  • Updated data on the huge differences between cities, suburbs, and the country in terms of competition:

broadband providers by rural and urban location

Panelists each issued some responses and remarks.

Matt Wood, Free Press: “tell me who isn’t an internet company these days”.

(someone) from the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB) .  He advocates for “anchor institutions”, non-businesses, often publicly funded, that are crucial for communities.  In their survey, #1 issue for schools was lack of broadband – was #3.  Moreover, schools and libraries are often massively overpaying (examples from Oklahoma and Florida). Another example: West Virginia hospital can’t afford to pay for broadband to make mammogram tech function.

Colleen Boothby (Ad Hoc Telecommunications Users Committee) (no web presence I can find) argued that the FCC and other policymakers saw competition coming more quickly than it turned out to, and so deregulated too quickly. Nice note: “The cloud is what we used to call the network, and it’s built by BDS services.”

Angie Kronenberg, Chief Advocate and General Counsel, INCOMPAS. “This topic is vital for the entire economy… It’s about the future of schools.”

(As I tweeted parts of this, one vital observation from aaa:


“A critical component as mostly urban schools create content for online courses.”)

Discussion followed.

  • Michael Calabrese wondered about the perspective of startup companies.
  • Boothby reiterated the point about lack of competition yielding bad quality of service.
  • (from here I couldn’t identify speakers) If you want to launch a startup anyone outside a city, you must suffer low quality service, or just can’t get access… If you don’t have BDS, you can’t be successful.  If you build out broadband, then the local economy grows.
  • Some think that broadband providers argued that being allowed to have monopoly status, being deregulated, would let them invest locally.  For example, AT+T’s U-verse rollout has slowed.  “Competition is what spurs investment.”
  • Cable (as opposed to wireless) providers tend not to respond to RFPs.

questionerAudience questions followed.

Why not a public option?  FCC tried this in the 1990s.  New America (I think) supports municipal broadband, but will take a long time.  But there isn’t enough spectrum to support business needs.  Might be ok for WiFi.

A banker argued that increased BDS was vital for her sector – to reach out to customers.

UNESCO representative: has been researching Japan and Scandinavia.  Wants to know about impact of BDS on rural schools and entrepreneurship.  Also: broadband to help rural people respond to climate change crises (“BDS is a must!”).

Final question was if people included tribal lands as “rural”.  Yes.

A few reactions from me, in rural America:

  1. All of this matches our experience in Vermont, especially the lack of competition.
  2. None of this is new, except for Katz’ fresh data.  This problem goes back a decade and more.
  3. I think poor rural broadband is now the accepted state of affairs.  Businesses and governments have tacitly accepted this largest of all digital divides as simply how things simply are now.
  4. If not having broadband depresses rural economies in comparison to the rest of society, this will accelerate the divide.  That’s because people will leave the country for cities, depopulating the former, especially of energetic entrepreneurs.  This will make rural areas even less attractive to broadband providers.  The gap will widen. The vicious circle will continue unless we break it.
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11 Responses to How bad is rural broadband? Today's New America Foundation panel

  1. Ellsbeth says:

    I also live in rural area, though I see Oregon does better on the table presented than other places. One reason we decided not to purchase a great home just outside of our town is because of the lack of good internet connection. My husband’s job involves a lot of online courses and moving there meant he couldn’t work from home. He and I also grew up in rural areas (eastern Montana and upper Michigan). There is a large broadband infrastructure gap in both of these places, along with virtually no competition. We always seem to find ourselves in the blank spots on the “widespread” cell coverage maps!

    We work at a small university where one of our primary missions is to serve students in rural areas. We are the only 4-year university in our half of the state (there are 6 such public universities in the urban half of the state) and our students are very spread out. Reliable and quality broadband would make a world of difference for us. We finally got *reliable* wireless access in all our campus buildings only about a year ago. So what can we do to help break the cycle?

    • “One reason we decided not to purchase a great home just outside of our town is because of the lack of good internet connection” – this is so vital. Are people aware of it?

      Serving students in rural areas: every single institution with this mission I’ve spoken with that isn’t very rich has huge, huge issues trying to reach those students.
      And I can’t remember when someone from an urban school has mentioned this.

      What to do… is it time for a grassroots nonprofit?

  2. Great summary of an important subject. Just had a meeting with a major provider and they indicated they are pulling out their DSL. That leaves one BDS provider for our area. The answer when we challenged this was we are going to build out cell data. They even have a device that you can put multiple SIM cards in. I argued that the latency is so bad, this wasn’t a solution. It’s become an issue of revenue versus cost. It’s a lot less expensive to build out cell towers and connect data then run fiber/cable to every home in America. Several examples show joining together with multiple providers works: Chattanooga as gig city for example (although, Chattanooga isn’t rural).

    Do we know what Mark Z. and others like him will enable with low-orbit satellites or solar plans over rural will do? If these are inexpensive in Africa, aren’t they so in the US? Do we need to be looking towards those who have a greater revenue fund (like Google and Facebook) to provide fast Internet instead of current BDS providers?

  3. mkt42 says:

    My guess is that the ebb and flow of broadband access is a reflection mainly of technology and costs. There are some things that people in isolated locations are simply not going to get — a subway line, a major airport, a multi-screen movie theater, etc. — because the costs are prohibitive. Or to cite examples which get closer to provision of life necessities (more so than broadband access): supermarkets and public or for that matter private bus service. If your location is sufficiently isolated, you won’t even be able to get sewage service, electricity, or natural gas; you’ll be on your own to provide it.

    Where does rural broadband access fall in this list of goods and services? I don’t know but the examples and discussion suggest that it’s right on the edge of viability, in terms of benefits versus costs.

    Competition can sometimes help; where possible we definitely do not want just one company providing say cable TV service or telecommunications.

    But if the community is small and isolated the market can be too small to support two companies. Or maybe even one company.

    Is it then the responsibility of government to make sure that the good or service is provided to these isolated communities? If the costs is low enough, sure. Or if the service is important enough (such as electricity, fire and police service, etc.). But it’s not clear to me that broadband qualifies on those grounds … internet access maybe, but broadband? There are some things that you just cannot get (given current technology and costs) without moving to a larger community. A gas station. A library. A local theater. And quite possibly, broadband access.

    • Good thoughts.

      You’re absolutely right about certain services and facilities. I would contrast those with others: roads, electricity, and radio. In the second category people and governments made policy decisions to provision those.

      Right now rural broadband falls somewhere between those two categories. There’s definitely a cadre of people, often older, who don’t see the need. There is also the problem of state officials not seeing a political benefit to unleashing broadband upon the countryside, which lacks lobbyists and other forms of political clout, compared to the cities and surburbs.

      On the other hand, we can view broadband as akin to electricity, as a non-negotiable feature of life. Or we could see it as a powerful economic accelerant, very needed in economically struggling rural areas.

  4. Pingback: Lame broadband is a direct hit on Vermont’s livelihood | Bryan Alexander

  5. Nathan John says:

    Well, the companies should have to provide better broadband to the rural areas also as it may also be useful to build the online business. As eCommerce and online services are one of the best ways to earn heavy profits.

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