Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Examining rural broadband with a profile of county that may have the nation's worst internet access

A fascinating article from FiveThirtyEight puts the issue of rural broadband access under a microscope with a profile of Saguache, Colo., which has the worst internet access in the country. It's emblematic of the 23 million rural Americans—almost 40 percent—who don't have broadband access. Only 5.6 percent of adults in Saguache were estimated to have broadband.

The mountains that define its beauty are part of the problem. Clare Malone writes, "Saguache (sa-WATCH) is nestled in between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan ranges, a four-hour drive southwest of Denver. Its population of 6,300 is spread across 3,169 square miles 7,800 feet above sea level, but on land that is mostly flat, so you can almost see the full scope of two mountain ranges as you drive the county’s highways." The mountains sometimes block telecom signals and make it more expensive to lay fiber-optic cable. The size of the county, sparsity of population, and average income are also problematic. "In Saguache, internet problems are both logistical and financial; the county is three times the size of Rhode Island, while 30 percent of residents live below the poverty line," Malone reports.
Estimated share of adults with typical internet speeds faster than dialup (FiveThirtyEight)
Price disparities can be huge even when rural Americans do have access to it. "For around $30 a month, New York City internet providers offer basic packages of 100 Mbps service. In Saguache County, such a connection is rare; if a household wants a download speed of 12 Mbps with an upload speed of 2 Mbps, they can expect to pay a whopping $90," Malone reports. That's a problem when so much of modern life depends on decent internet access: not just Netflix and video games, but banking, news, telemedicine, studying, and business needs. Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of the Rural Broadband Association, cited a 2016 study from the Hudson Institute that estimated that online retail sales in rural areas would be at least $1 billion higher if their internet was as high-quality as their city counterparts'.

Some argue that internet access is now as necessary to Americans as electricity. Could the government lend a hand in bringing broadband to rural areas, as President Franklin Roosevelt did with electricity? Then, the government provided loans to local co-ops that were already building networks; a similar model may prove promising in modern times. President Trump has proposed $200 billion in infrastructure spending, and said he would promote broadband access in rural America, but there are no concrete plans yet.

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