Tuesday, June 21, 2016

'Digital divide' between rural and urban shows no sign of disappearing as broadband gets faster

Photo: bradselectronics.com
The "digital divide" between rural and urban areas has not disappeared despite ever-improving technology. The latest data from the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration show that only 55 percent of people living in rural areas have access to broadband internet service, while 94 percent of their urban counterparts do.

Why does it matter? Broadband adoption can help improve the economy in rural areas, including increasing income, lowering unemployment rates and creating jobs, Brian Whitacre, associate professor and Extension economist at Oklahoma State University, wrote in USA Today.

Lack of access to a fast internet connection at school and at home can also set children living in poor rural areas up for failure. The Rural Blog previously reported that these children often suffer with important life skills that require online fluency: college applications, research for papers and job searches.

Technology continues to improve, allowing existing wiring to carry heavier loads of data. The federal government has historically tried to expand infrastructure that would allow for broadband access to rural communities. The "Connect America Fund" offered $10 billion in subsidies to the nation's largest telecommunication companies to offer service to more than 4 million un-served homes and businesses in 2015.

What classifies as "broadband" is determined by the FCC, and it changes fairly regularly as technology evolves. In the early 2000s, the FCC defined broadband connections as those that could transfer data at a speed of 200 kilobytes per second (kbps) in at least one direction, either downloading or uploading. That was about four times faster than historical dial-up modems (56 kbps).

In 2010, the FCC required connections to be five times faster still to be considered broadband. The minimum downstream (downloading) speed increased to 4 megabits per second (mbps), with at least 1 mbps upstream (uploading). Companies receiving Connect America Funds have to provide at least 10 mbps downstream and 1 upstream. But in 2015, the FCC again upgraded its broadband requirement to 25 mbps downstream and 3 mbps upstream, meaning that federal dollars funded service that already falls short of current requirements at the time of implementation.

Whitacre predicts the threshold will continue to increase, and rural areas will require the most work to reach it and stay compliant; their existing bandwidth is generally slower than in urban areas. Only 75 percent of rural Americans have access to fixed (not mobile) connections of at least 10 mbps download speeds, compared to 98 percent of urban residents, Whitacre notes. Only 61 percent of rural residents meet the current 25 mbps threshold for any type of technology, compared to 94 percent of city dwellers.

A major obstacle to rural broadband access is cost. It's more efficient for companies to install lines in high population areas because there are far more people to pay for use of those lines. Installing lines in rural areas is costly, and because there are fewer potential customers per square mile, they don't turn a profit as readily as those in cities.

Even improving existing wires in rural areas can be expensive. Fiber optic cable is used in new installs. In areas still served by older copper wires, though, sending data at high speeds for long distances can be a problem. Signals degrade after about three miles. To get data traveling longer distances to and through rural areas, companies must install signal-amplifying equipment called "access multipliers," which add to the cost of serving rural areas, Whitacre writes.

However, rural broadband advocates have had some good news the past couple of years with the continuing development of the Connect America Fund. The FCC set up several "Rural Broadband Experiments" in 2015, with 14 projects ongoing (10 fiber and four wireless). Whitacre said that he expects these experiments to provide some insight into the technological, administrative and logistical issues associated with funding rural broadband.

Even if rural broadband infrastructure were exactly the same as in cities, there would still be a "digital divide" in adoption rates, Whitacre noted because rural populations are older, less educated and have lower income.

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