For those living in urban and suburban areas, access to broadband is something that is taken for granted. Whether at home, at work, or sipping a latte at the local Starbucks, it is rarely a challenge to gain access to the Internet. Unfortunately, that is not the case for many people living and working in rural areas across the nation.
Access to rural broadband is a topic that has been gaining attention in recent years. As a nation, we are relying more and more on digital technology for all aspects of our lives. And that has left many rural areas lagging behind. The FCC estimates that in urban areas, 97% of Americans have access to high-speed Internet service. In rural areas, that number falls to 65%. Nearly 30 million Americans are not able to take full advantage of the opportunities that come along with broadband connectivity.
The federal government has invested significant resources in bridging the digital divide for all Americans.
Most recently, the FCC announced a new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund that will invest over $20 billion to connect up to 4 million rural homes and businesses with high-speed broadband over the next ten years. There are also independent organizations, such as Connected Nation, that are tracking the progress with up-to-date maps showing access to broadband at the state and county level.
With all of the attention focused on this topic, one thing is clear. Access to broadband is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity.
The Promise of Rural Broadband
Of course, access to broadband in rural areas would provide obvious benefits for residential customers, such as increased speeds for surfing the Internet or streaming their favorite movies and TV shows. But the benefits extend way beyond the individual customer. Access to rural broadband is essential for a strong economy and healthy communities.
Here are four important ways that access to broadband impacts quality of life in rural areas:
- Attracting New Businesses. Access to broadband is the foundation for any new business venture. When companies are looking to locate or expand into a rural area, one of the top priorities is broadband access. Not only is broadband needed to support the business operations, but it is also a quality of life issue for any employees who would be residing in the area. Access to broadband is also critical for local entrepreneurs seeking to start up a small business in their community.
- Modernizing Farming and Agriculture. Agriculture is a major industry in rural areas. It is estimated that 29 percent of farmers in the U.S. do not have Internet access, making it nearly impossible for them to take advantage of the latest technology. Access to broadband would allow farmers to better manage operations, improve efficiency, and implement more environmentally responsible farming tools. It would also allow them to better access and communicate with their customers.
- Expanding Educational Opportunities. The K-12 education system is increasingly dependent on computers and Internet connectivity. Students in rural areas should have access to the same quality of education that is available in urban and suburban areas. That means access to broadband Internet for completing their homework and other self-paced learning activities. In addition, there are many adult learners in rural areas who would like to earn a college degree or certification online. This also requires access to broadband.
- Improving Access to Health Care. Many rural communities lack sufficient access to health care providers, which requires patients to drive for hours just to visit a specialist. Access to broadband is needed to facilitate telemedicine services, so that patients can consult with a specialist online. Telemedicine is also useful for behavioral health and addiction counseling services, which are often limited in rural areas. And health care providers can use broadband capabilities to connect with continuing medical education resources online.
Improving Rural Broadband Access in Michigan
According to data from Connect Michigan, about 7 percent of Michigan households are underserved when it comes to broadband. This is based on the new definition of broadband from the federal government, which requires download speeds of 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. Companies like D & P Communications are working to improve access to broadband in rural areas. Unlike some large cable companies, D & P Communications is an exclusively rural cable and Internet provider.
There are two ways that we can bring broadband to rural areas:
- For larger towns, we run cable under the ground to build out a network. These are labor intensive projects that can take 1-2 years to complete. First, we have to obtain permits to dig underground and lay the cable. In addition to the cable, we need to build a central data center where the lines connect. Once the network is in place, we can connect the fiber lines to each home or business in the area and provide speeds of up to 500 Mbps.
- For more remote areas, we have developed a wireless solution to bring broadband to the community. We are still working on getting all of the remote areas up to the required 25 Mbps download speed for broadband. In many of the remote areas we serve, D & P Communications is the only provider in the area.
People who do not have access to broadband in their area can try other options, such as satellite or a cellular hot spot from their phone provider, but those options are generally slower and are more adversely impacted by weather conditions.
Educating the Public About Rural Broadband
D & P Communications is more than just a service provider. Part of our mission is to educate the public and help people understand the importance of digital technology and how it impacts individuals and businesses in our community. We have been an Internet provider since the 1990s, when we built our first fiber networks. We have made a substantial investment in building out our networks in towns such as Adrian, Dundee, Hudson, Ida, Petersburg, and Tecumseh.
We have made significant progress, but there is much more work to be done, not only in building the networks, but in sharing information about broadband availability. According to survey data from Connect Michigan, 16 percent of Michigan households did not subscribe to a broadband service simply because they were not aware that broadband was available in their area.
Over the past few years, we’ve made substantial investments to bring Internet service to rural communities, offering broadband speeds to communities that have not had access in the past. Soon, we’ll be launching even more upgrades to our fiber networks that will bring higher Internet speeds to the large towns we serve in Lenawee County. And we will continue our efforts to bring broadband speeds to the most rural areas through new wireless technology.
We’re dedicated to improving the digital infrastructure in all of our local communities so that they all have the amenities needed to attract families and businesses.