Those of us who live in urban centers take wired and wireless connectivity for granted. We expect to be able to connect to the internet from our homes and from mobile devices wherever we are. Not only do we expect to be able to connect; we also expect the broadband bandwidths that allow us to stream media, chat by video, and access bandwidth-intensive cloud applications.
But millions of Americans don’t have access to broadband. About 23.4 million people who live in rural areas have inadequate access to the internet. Because the United States is so large and because it would be hugely expensive to build out fiber and cable infrastructure in remote areas, many rural dwellers are restricted to bandwidths that were surpassed in urban areas more than a decade ago.
Lack of high-speed access to the internet doesn’t just stop rural populations from streaming Netflix. It deprives them of their share of the economic and social benefits that broadband internet connectivity has brought to the rest of America.
Without broadband, people are denied access to the innovations driven by new communications platforms, cloud applications and educational opportunities.
Cloud-based and mobile applications that rely on broadband have created huge wealth and connectivity, but some areas of the United States can’t take advantage of the business and employment opportunities, the healthcare benefits, and other innovations built on the foundations of high-speed broadband.
The healthcare industry is particularly concerned that lack of rural broadband is denying residents of remote areas access to life-saving and life-improving telemedicine technology. Earlier this year, the American Association of Family Physicians wrote to the FCC, explaining that “telehealth technologies can enhance patient-physician collaborations, increase access to care, improve health outcomes by enabling timely care interventions, and decrease costs when utilized as a component of, and coordinated with, longitudinal care.”
But that may be about to change. Businesses and state and federal government are eager to bring broadband to rural areas. New fixed wireless technologies make rural broadband economically viable.
AT&T has rolled out fixed wireless broadband to more than 160,000 locations across nine states as part of its commitment to the FCC’s Connect America Fund. Microsoft is working with industry leaders on the development of economically viable technologies with the aim of eliminating the rural broadband gap by 2022.
The Trump administration’s $1.3 trillion budget was signed in March and includes $600 million for the Department of Agriculture to create a rural broadband pilot program and extend funding to existing rural broadband programs.
There is a substantial market developing around the provision of broadband services to rural populations based on fixed wireless connectivity, the TV white spaces spectrum, and satellite coverage, technology that is expected to reduce potential infrastructure costs by 80 percent compared to the cost of fiber alone.
Businesses that intend to contribute to the growth of rural broadband or take advantage of the new markets that it opens should begin by cultivating an expertise in these emerging technologies through strategic executive hiring and technical training.