Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Rural broadband, can the private sector play a role?

It was announced yesterday that Microsoft plans to invest $1 million-2 million to aid with the expansion of broadband in rural West Virginia. The initiative will be apart of Microsoft's Rural Airband Initiative, which hopes to expand broadband to 2 million rural residents by 2022. Much like the federal government, Microsoft will seek to use its funding to connect with existing internet service providers.

Lawmakers from rural communities have struggled to find ways to expand broadband into their communities and are increasingly looking to private companies to invest in the infrastructure needed. When Mark Zuckerberg, funder of rural broadband expansion initiatives abroad, appeared on Capitol Hill to discuss data privacy concerns, rural lawmakers reached out to him to see if he would be willing to duplicate those efforts in the United States. The lawmakers ranged from places like West Virginia to Ohio to Iowa and were all seeking a solution to a problem that universally plagues rural economies. Zuckerberg responded by noting the prohibitively high cost of deploying the infrastructure needed to adequately provide internet to rural spaces but said that Facebook was working to develop technology to bring that cost down. Using current technology, the cost of fully developing this infrastructure is not insignificant and would be a significant lift for any private entity. In March, Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative in Minnesota, estimated that it would cost $350 billion to connect every home in America to broadband internet. This is a rather significant cost for the private sector to bear. 

In the past, I have also suggested that we treat rural broadband expansion similarly to rural electrification and create a sustained national effort to get this done as quickly and universally as possible. After all, the economic returns of investing in broadband technology can be tremendous. Just last week, NBC News profile Lake County, Minnesota, which used $80 million from President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus to create and grow broadband infrastructure. The story discusses a saw mill worker who saw a new market open up for his wood, a great example of the ability of the internet to make the world smaller.

Just yesterday, I discussed Vermont's decision to pay workers to work remotely in their state. This is yet another example of how rural communities can adapt to the changing economy to benefit their communities. However, the current state of broadband infrastructure makes this decision prohibitively difficult and even impossible for some rural communities.

As I have said before, the only way that this issue will be adequately addressed is through substantial investment in rural broadband expansion, in much the same way that we brought electricity to rural communities.

No comments: