The coronavirus pandemic has intensified several long-standing issues that our nation needs to address. Obvious gaps in the availability of necessities are coming to light for communities. And as stay-at-home orders shutter doors, one significant gap is directly impacting our rural residents: communication deserts.
Like food deserts — areas where an absence of grocery stores restricts access to healthy and affordable food — communication deserts are rural and remote areas where access to reliable and affordable internet isn’t available. The lack of high-speed service in these communities throughout the U.S. is due in part to reduced incentives for communication companies to lay fiber infrastructure for a limited number of potential customers. Fortunately, electric utilities can help bridge that devastating gap.
Stepping Up to Be the Answer
Electric utilities power our communities and build infrastructure that provides opportunity indiscriminately to everyone in the U.S. No matter how remote the location, electric utilities have historically put infrastructure in place to support customers wherever they live — a movement that started with the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 and lives on today through the Rural Utilities Service. To aid in the communication development into rural areas, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is allocating capital to broadband providers, electric cooperatives, cable providers and wireless companies over the next 10 years.
Fiber infrastructure is the backbone required to deliver the data speeds rural communities need to thrive. By expanding the fiber strands already in place, utilities can create an equity of service between urban and rural areas. And, in the process, utilities can demonstrate their dedication to consumer advocacy by offering access to opportunities ranging from healthcare and secondary education to online employment and expanded industries.
For years now, rural communities have been trying to make do with slower, less reliable broadband service. And in a world driven by internet connectivity, this disparity has threatened to also slow growth for quality education, careers and more. Without reliable internet, children cannot benefit from online courses and adults cannot fairly compete for remote jobs. Residents also cannot take advantage of telehealth services for remote visitation and diagnosis, and healthcare professionals may not be able to securely access HIPAA-controlled documentation. While not a new obstacle for these sparsely populated areas, the disparity is only going to keep expanding — and rapidly — as organizations consider more online environments in the shadow of the pandemic.
Creating Connections Isn’t Always Easy
Granted, building this essential connectivity is not as simple as throwing more fiber into the ground. Often, these remote areas have rough terrain and unforeseen service obstacles.
One specific concern utilities may consider before expanding fiber infrastructure for more reliable rural broadband is land restrictions. True, electric utilities have already run power lines to these areas, but new land agreements could exist now that didn’t then. And, of course, difficult terrain such as mountains, rivers and railroads can still pose problems. To help overcome this issue and reduce conflict, though, utilities can reach out to local governments and internet service providers early in the process for support. Together, a well-rounded partnership can develop a plan that includes all parties.
The thought of being responsible for quality of service to third-party companies may also hold a utility back from expanding its fiber reach. Communication companies possess extensive monitoring technology to maintain speed and service quality, something that electric utilities do not currently focus on with fiber. Therefore, utilities might be concerned with being beholden to quality of communication service. However, the level of support between increased fiber cable and the transmission infrastructure already in place most likely will not surge significantly because the same challenges and issues exist for both.
Starting Now to Generate Opportunities
While the limitations of rural broadband service are not new, the urgency to rectify them is rising dramatically. The coronavirus pandemic is isolating people and communities, driving the critical need for virtual connections — not only to see others, but to continue to learn and earn a living. And it is increasingly unacceptable for a world capable of thorough and complete communication networks to leave rural and remote communities behind.
Organizations are already attempting to meet the need and serve their communities. The American Connection Project Broadband Coalition, convened by farmer-owned Land O’Lakes, consists of almost 50 organizations across various industries to bring high-speed internet infrastructure to rural areas. The coalition is also advocating for nationwide policies and investing its own resources to facilitate access. However, electric utilities still remain the most equipped to establish these vital fiber connections.
Utilities have the existing infrastructure, rights-of-way, and operations and maintenance crews needed, and more are even finding the revenue potential of additional fiber to offset rate increases for electric consumers. The opportunity to benefit both the electric utility and the underserved residents in rural communities exists, but it will take a change in mindset. Now is the time, especially as families and students brace for the uncertainty of how education will be conducted in the fall, for utilities — and the nation — to think about internet access and broadband connection the way they think about electric service.
Electric utilities can be the conduit for opportunity and change to unite all of our communities, rural and urban. If all citizens, no matter their location, can advance together, the rewards will reverberate for generations to come. It’s time to lead by building connections.
Electric utilities can deliver broadband internet to the 25 million Americans who still lack access to it. Learn more about connecting the last remaining mile.