Friday, June 12, 2020

Rural utility co-ops could bridge the digital gap, says report from group that promotes local-government solutions

Institute for Local Self-Reliance map; for a larger version, click on it.
Locally owned utility cooperatives already play an important role in providing basic services to rural households, but they could also help bridge the digital gap by bringing fiber-optic broadband to underserved rural areas, according to a new report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which advocates for local-government solutions. 

According to the study, 26 percent of rural Americans have no fiber-optic service available, compared to only 2% of urban residents. That jibes with a 2019 study by the Purdue Center for Regional Development. Fiber optic is the fastest form of broadband, and rural co-ops are more likely to provide it. Larger telecommunications companies often win large federal bids to build out rural broadband, then save money by using the slower (and cheaper) Digital Subscriber Line technology, which uses phone lines, ILSR says. The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as internet with speeds of at lest 25 megabits per second downloads and 3 Mbps upload.

As of June 2019, rural utility co-ops provided up to 30% of fiber-optic services in rural America, according to FCC data. But since those numbers don't reflect build-outs that are in progress, the number is likely higher. The report highlights success stories and recommends policies to help rural co-ops expand, receive more state and federal funding, and more easily serve as internet providers.

"The report stresses the outsized role the co-ops play in providing basic services to rural households. Electric cooperatives maintain 42% of the electric distribution lines in the United States, serving 20 million entities, from homes to farms, 'providing reliable power to 56% of the entire U.S. land area, accounting for 42 million people in 48 states,'" Jan Pytalski reports for The Daily Yonder. "More than 30 states have at least one telephone cooperative, according to the report."

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