Billions earmarked to connect everyone to high-speed Internet may still be insufficient

Along Oklahoma’s southeastern border, where sprawling cattle ranches and empty storefronts dot the landscape, the lack of high-speed internet service has become a daily frustration for residents.

Wanda Finley, a fourth-grade teacher in Sawyer, Oklahoma, said the satellite service at her home was often too slow to use and sometimes went out for days. She can’t schedule medical appointments, request prescription refills, or pay bills online before arriving at work. Almost every weekend, she drives about 40 minutes to school to prepare her weekly lesson plan, because it can take a few minutes to load a single web page at home.

I hope that changes,” Ms. Finley, 60, said recently, sitting at home one afternoon.

If President Biden gets his way, Ms. Finley and her neighbors will benefit from a $42.5 billion program aimed at expanding fast internet access across the country. This funding, provided for in the 2021 Infrastructure Act, is part of an initiative with high ambitions: providing “reliable and affordable high-speed Internet” access to every home and business by 2030.

This effort aims to close the “digital divide” by ensuring all Americans can connect to fast internet, given the critical role it plays in economic opportunity, education, health care and other areas. areas. The Biden administration has also invested more than $22 billion in other programs aimed at building broadband networks and lowering the cost of internet bills.

The lack of broadband infrastructure is particularly problematic in rural areas, where Internet service is often unavailable or limited. About 24 percent of Americans living in rural areas lack high-speed Internet service as defined by the new program, compared to 1.7 percent in urban areas. Research has shown that internet connectivity can fuel economic growth in rural areas, helping to create jobs, attract workers and increase housing values.

Attempts to make broadband accessible to everyone are not new: The federal government has already poured billions into efforts that have yielded mixed results. Biden administration officials said the new program, combined with other federal and state funding, would be enough to finally reach everyone who lacks high-speed internet access.

But some state officials and industry analysts remain cautious and have expressed concerns about the funds’ ability to meet all of the administration’s goals.

This is partly due to the considerable cost of deploying broadband infrastructure in rural and sparsely populated areas. It can be expensive to lay fiber optic cable when homes are far apart and terrain issues make digging into the ground difficult. Labor shortages could further drive up construction costs and delay projects.

There are 8.5 million “unserved” and 3.6 million “underserved” locations across the country, according to data from the Federal Communications Commission. Each state received a minimum of $100 million of the $42.5 billion tranche, plus additional funds based on the number of unserved sites. States must first address areas that have no or insufficient internet service, then can use the funds to expand into underserved areas. Remaining funds can be used for community institutions and then for issues such as affordability.

The success of the initiative is expected to vary by state. Some, like Louisiana and Virginia, have already said they plan to cover all unserved and underserved locations. Others expressed more skepticism about the scope of the funding.

Edyn Rolls, director of Oklahoma’s broadband strategy, said it’s unlikely the state, with its large rural population, has enough funds to reach all underserved areas, and that covering any unserved areas could be a challenge.

State officials said recent versions of the FCC map showing available internet service across the country have improved, but may still be an overestimate of coverage . Local governments and providers will be able to challenge existing data, but state allocations are already set, meaning funds are expected to be stretched even further if officials identify more places lacking high-speed service. Speed.

Ms Rolls said there was a “real potential” that such a scenario could develop, adding that officials had heard from residents that there was “definitely an overestimation of the service”. And while she said fiber optics would be a better long-term investment, a combination of technologies would need to be deployed to reach every unserved location.

Even with subsidies, companies might not find it profitable to build everywhere. Robert Osborn, director of California’s communications division, said some locations in the state, which are geographically diverse and have large, hard-to-reach areas, likely won’t attract any interest from providers. To attract bidders, Mr. Osborn said the state could in some cases reduce the requirement for suppliers to cover at least 25 percent of a project’s price, but that would risk diverting money from other projects.

“It’s not as simple as giving money to a big Internet service provider and saying, ‘Go build there,'” Mr. Osborn said.

Evan Feinman, director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s $42.5 billion program, said officials are confident that federal and state funds will be enough to cover all unserved and underserved locations, meaning that every American would have access to Internet speeds of at least 100 megabits per second for downloads and 20 megabits for uploads.

Still, he said some projects could take up to five years, and he predicted construction wouldn’t begin until late 2024. Although he said most sites would receive fiber optic connections, he expected others to be covered by fixed wireless or satellite technology.

Satellite is not considered reliable under program rules, but Mr. Feinman said some services were better than others and states could use funds for satellite equipment and service for a handful from remote places. Starlink, a satellite technology developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, is considered more reliable, but the hardware costs hundreds of dollars and it can take months to get off waiting lists.

The scope of the funding will be significant for Americans who have long lacked access to high-speed internet. Ms. Finley said she wanted to give homework involving more research online because it would accelerate her fourth-grade students’ learning. But many could not complete it. Only three of the 20 students in his class have sufficient Internet access at home. The rest have no service or can only use their parents’ cell phones.

A few miles away in Fort Towson, Okla., population about 600, Mayor Tami Barnes said people constantly complained about internet speeds, which she called a “huge drag” on local economy. On a recent afternoon, the busiest part of town was the parking lot of a convenience store and gas station. The other two main businesses are a steakhouse and a Dollar General store.

Although internet bills represent a financial burden for many families, Ms Barnes said more residents would likely attend their medical appointments online if they had broadband access, as many often travel to to three hours to consult specialized doctors.

Other sparsely populated states, like Montana, could also face more challenges. In Montana’s Broadwater County, where many homes are separated by large swaths of grassy land and some are nestled in mountainous areas, residents said the lack of timely service made it difficult to work from home.

Denise Thompson, 58, who operates a cattle ranch with her husband in Townsend, Mont., said she wanted to create a website to ship more beef products, but she didn’t know how she could do it. make it work at home, as she relied on heat from her phone. place to access the internet and its connection was slow. She hasn’t tried to stream a movie in about a year because it usually gets stuck buffering for a few minutes.

His house is located in a ravine between two high hills and his nearest neighbor is about five kilometers away. Its only other option is therefore satellite service. Even with the new federal money, Thompson said she was skeptical that she would see more reliable options.

“I really don’t expect that to happen,” she said.

Lindsey Richtmyer, a county commissioner, said many places would be classified as underserved, but were actually receiving slower service than the FCC map reflects. County officials are encouraging residents to take speed tests in hopes of identifying a large portion of the area as unserved.

According to estimates, Montana would need more than $1.2 billion to deploy fiber optics to all unserved or underserved locations, a shortfall of more than $500 million. Misty Ann Giles, director of the Montana Department of Administration, said a combination of technologies would be needed to reach everyone because deploying fiber could cost the state up to $300,000 in some regions.

“Obviously more money would have been appreciated,” she said. “But we’re going to figure it out and make it work.”


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