For Rural Communities, Broadband Expansion Is No Single Thing | LOR Foundation

For Rural Communities, Broadband Expansion Is No Single Thing

By Ilana Newman, The Daily Yonder


Photo by Claire Cella

This story was produced through the Daily Yonder Rural Reporting Fellowship, with support from the LOR Foundation.

Tourism runs the economy in the old mining town of Silverton, Colorado. From skiers in the winter to hikers and four-wheelers and mountain enthusiasts of all stripes in the summer – without tourism, the town of around 600 people has very little industry. 

And there is one resource the town is absolutely dependent on – the internet. 

Most coffee shops, restaurants, and souvenir shops rely on the Internet to keep their business running — without it, owners can’t accept credit or debit cards. Without reliable, affordable internet, rural communities have limited economic opportunities and lack access to education, healthcare, and many other services. 

The Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, created under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed in November of 2021, provides grants to states for broadband expansion to provide accessible, high-speed internet especially to rural communities. States, local governments, and nonprofits are now tasked with finding ways to use the currently available funding to bring broadband to residents. 

Broadband expansion is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, said Adrianne Furniss, director of the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, referencing the importance of executing this enormous infrastructure project correctly. Past generations have created the highway system and brought electricity to most of the country. Broadband — high-speed, reliable internet — is the highway system of the 21st century. 

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides $42.45 billion for broadband deployment in rural areas. Furniss is concerned about spending the money wisely for this major infrastructure project. 

This money is vital for rural broadband because without the subsidy, there is little to no incentive for internet companies to lay fiber optic cables in rural areas. It would never be financially feasible for them to bring high-speed internet to some of these communities because the take rate is so low.

“If you build five miles of fiber optic cable the number of homes along that five miles that take your services that’s called the take rate,” said Shalako Powers, project manager for Region 9, an economic development nonprofit that serves the five-county region of Southwest Colorado. 

“In a place like downtown Denver, you’ve got somebody taking your services every hundred feet. But between Pagosa Springs and Bayfield [rural Colorado towns 40 miles apart], it might be every couple of miles and because of the expense of burying or even building aerial with fiber optic networks, no internet service provider can get the return on investment necessary to build to those homes.”

The town of Silverton currently runs on fixed wireless, which means that all of the internet modems in Silverton are picking up internet from one tower. One fiber optic cable connected to the tower provides the fixed wireless, but if that cable is damaged, the town has no redundancy to provide backup.

Internet speeds as you would find in a city are not currently available for many rural residents. 

According to a Broadband Roadmap created by Region 9, in Montezuma County, approximately 1,000 people do not have access to any wired internet service; 3,000 people do not have access to 25/3 Mbps. 

In the Town of Dolores, Spectrum and Farmers claim to offer 1 Gbps; however, the average download speed is 11.62 Mbps. In Denver, through CenturyLink, a provider that also serves rural Southwest Colorado, a resident could currently receive up to 200mbsp for $30/month.

 “Two times this year there has been a fiber strike because of the lack of redundancy the long haul has provided between Durango and Archuleta County on one of the old CenturyTel lines, ” said Shalako Powers, project manager for Region 9.

“It was struck during a road construction operation and took down all communications in Archuleta County and part of La Plata County because the towers that provide cellular also run off the single fiber optic cable. So in addition to not being able to run the economy, they also didn’t have access to things like 911,” Powers told the Daily Yonder.

Redundancy for broadband means that the fiber optic cable creates a loop, said Powers. For example, in Southwest Colorado, this means that there’s fiber optic cable running through each community and connecting to the major cities of Salt Lake City, Utah, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Denver, Colorado and Phoenix, Arizona where if the cable is damaged, service continues from the other direction, instead of everything past the damage being completely cut off. 

Developing the Middle Mile

Region 9 applied for $66 million from the National Telecommunications Infrastructure Administration, an agency managing the distribution of the money, to develop middle-mile infrastructure. “Middle-mile” refers to the connections between communities, while “last-mile” refers to connections to homes and businesses. 

“A lot of our area lacks the middle mile infrastructure necessary to get really high speeds at the place of work or somebody’s residence,” said Powers. Region 9 recently found out they were not afforded the funding, and now has to figure out a different way to fund the building of those middle-mile connections.

But even once the infrastructure exists, not all rural residents will have access to the internet. “Everybody says the problem in rural areas is access and no infrastructure and the problem in urban areas is affordability,” said Furniss, “The answer is affordability is as much of a problem in rural areas as it is in urban areas. And in fact, people are paying more for worse service in rural areas.”

The Benton Institute is helping communities create plans for broadband expansion, and part of that is finding alternative service providers that are able to provide competition for the larger players. “When Frontier is the only game in town, we look next door and see whether there’s a co-op provider that might edge out into your area.,” said Furniss. 

“One of the reasons I’m in love with electric co-ops and telephone co-ops is that they, the community owns the network,” said Furniss. “They don’t care if the return on investment takes 10-plus years. They’re ok with that. The big guys want their return in three years.”

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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