Rural communities see big returns with broadband access, but roadblocks persist

“For rural America there’s a major struggle to keep people and ideas in these small communities,” said a small town mayor.
by Phil McCausland /  / Updated 

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A contractor building high-end houses in Minneapolis swung by Greg Hull’s sawmill on Friday, a timber operation located in deeply rural Lake County, Minnesota. The builder had seen Hull’s website and driven nearly 250 miles to the mill to inspect Hull’s high-end lumber as potential building material for his homes.

These days that’s not unusual. In the past year-and-a-half, Hull has seen orders balloon and interest grow, and a significant factor is his recent ability to gain access to high-speed internet. That's made a huge difference for the saw mill, located at the end of a power line in an area that knows only gravel roads and limited cellphone coverage.

“Before, if you wanted to download or do anything on the internet, back when it was a phone line system, you couldn’t do anything,” said Hull, who lives and works on 100 acres of Minnesota woodland. “I had to go to the library or hire someone to do stuff, but now we can do it all. We have an improved website. It’s made the whole internet presence a lot more viable, which has in turn opened the exposure.”

Image: Greg Hull
Greg HullCourtesy Greg Hull

That’s something largely new to Lake County, an area that covers 3,000 square miles and stretches from the shores of Lake Superior to the Canadian border. About 10,000 people call this area home. But local leaders there decided they needed high-speed internet, and after nearly eight years and the investment of more than $80 million — much of it coming from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (also known as former President Barack Obama's stimulus bill) — access to the internet is beginning to boost the local economy.

That could mean a long-term impact of tens of millions of dollars in household economic benefit and residential real estate value, a report by the Blandin Foundation claimed.

The economic upside of internet access is being pushed by rural broadband advocates across the country who say that there isn’t enough being done to connect rural communities. Building out the necessary infrastructure, they argue, could function as an economic and informational driver for some of the country’s most cash-strapped regions.

Spotty coverage

There's reason to think that this could also be an economic boon for the nation. According to an April 2016 study by Hudson Institute, the rural broadband industry supported nearly 70,000 jobs and provided states in which they operated with more than $24 billion in 2015.

But one of the largest challenges, advocates say, is that there isn’t enough data to know where to invest effectively.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., recently got into a scrape with the Federal Communications Commission after he discovered the FCC put out a map that claimed 98 percent of Mississippi had access to a reliable 4G LTE wireless internet connection. Wicker said he found the conclusion “absurd” and “troublesome.”

The FCC planned to use the map to decide where to place more than $4.5 billion in rural broadband subsidies, which has major implications for communities nationwide.

Image: Sen. Roger Wicker
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) talks with reporters as he heads for his party's weekly policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol May 16, 2017 in Washington, DC.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

Wicker led a group of senators in demanding that the FCC reconsider its map, pushing for a 90-day extension to listen to challenges of its accuracy. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced late last month that he would grant the senator’s request.

In Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the country, which is also struggling to retain its millennial population and hoping to attract job-providing companies, the FCC map is crucial.

“In places like Mississippi, this means our state’s talented students miss out on opportunities to learn and to grow,” Wicker told NBC News in a statement. “Elderly and disabled residents in the Delta can’t access lifesaving telehealth services that connect doctors to patients. And, our farmers aren’t able to deploy the latest precision agriculture technologies that can help boost yields and increase productivity in an increasingly competitive global market.”

“We’re having to reinvent ourselves and we’re having to do it quickly. The quality of technology is a huge part of that. That’s driving what’s going on in our community to allow people to live here, stay here and work remotely.”

That’s a problem that Lake County saw on the horizon, which is why local leaders agreed to pour so much money into the project. To them, many said, it was an investment into basic infrastructure.

“For rural America, there’s a major struggle to keep people and ideas in these small communities,” said Chris Swanson, the mayor of Two Harbors, the largest town in Lake County, with around 4,000 people. “We’re having to reinvent ourselves and we’re having to do it quickly. The quality of technology is a huge part of that. That’s driving what’s going on in our community to allow people to live here, stay here and work remotely.”

Imaeg: Lake Connections crew laying fiber underground in Blueberry Hill, Minnesota.
Lake Connections crew laying fiber underground in Blueberry Hill, Minnesota.Lake Connections

The unknown grid

It’s not just the map of 4G LTE coverage that has sparked controversy.

The American Reinvestment Act provided funding for all 50 states, five territories and the District of Columbia to extend broadband availability to rural areas, allowing policymakers and others to make informed decisions when allocating resources. But the funding for that project expired in 2015 and each year the data it produced becomes increasingly inaccurate and irrelevant.

To make matters even more difficult for rural communities, major telecom companies don’t see many dollar signs in their own future by providing rural areas with access to the expensive infrastructure.

The FCC and state commissions now depend on internet service providers to self-report their coverage areas based on census blocks, and that creates numerous issues, according to Johnathan Hladik, the policy director for the Center for Rural Affairs.

Hladik explained that service providers can mark a census block as “served” if one household within it has access to broadband, no matter how many others have the ability to gain access. In some cases, a provider can also mark a block as “served” when no household has access if the block could be served without an “extraordinary commitment of resources.”

Hladik is now working to convince the Nebraska legislature to invest in greater coverage for the state, an issue that he was able to bring to the floor during the last legislative session but without success.

Image: Lake Connections crew burying fiber underground in Blueberry Hill, Minnesota.
Lake Connections crew burying fiber underground in Blueberry Hill, Minnesota.Lake Connections

“We think that the state should require that data collection and mapping be done at the address level and it should include the speed, type of technology, service area location and any limitations for service,” Hladik said. “We think service providers should provide this information to the FCC or state commission and standardize the data.”

The tech gap

Without investment, communities without internet access are in danger of falling behind the growing digital economy that has an increasingly large stake in the U.S. Workers are now expected to have a large amount of digital know-how when entering the workplace.

“What we know off the bat is that if you don’t have broadband you will be left out,” said Roberto Gallardo, the assistant director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development. “If you do have it, it really is analogous to the installation of a railroad 100 years ago or a highway 50 years ago. Broadband has that same potential to connect communities.”

But it remains to be seen if or when major investment into rural broadband will be pursued.

Shirley Bloomfield, the CEO of the Rural Broadband Association, warns that leaders should be careful with how they pursue rural broadband. Accountability has to be a huge part of any infrastructure investment, especially because these dollars are so precious.

“One of the things that is concerning any time you say that government resources are coming here is you get fly by night operations, you get folks who don’t know how to build broadband but they see federal dollars,” Bloomfield said. “It’s important there’s accountability here because resources are very scarce.”

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