Coronavirus emphasizes need for rural broadband
Published on April 4, 2020
Over the course of a few weeks, the coronavirus has sent home hundreds of thousands of workers and students across the country to work and learn from home. However, working and learning from home poses a real challenge to rural families as most don’t have adequate access to internet connection in their own homes.
During an American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) podcast on March 12, RJ Karney, AFBF congressional relations director, points out many rural areas lack quality connections.
“Broadband is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity for farmers, ranchers and rural communities,” says Karney. “Rural Americans rely on broadband for distance learning and they rely on broadband for telemedicine. We’ve seen a drastic decline in primary care physicians throughout rural America, so the high-speed connection that broadband provides is a quality of life standard for rural America.”
In 2019, the Pew Research Center reported 73 percent of Americans have a home broadband connection. However, 63 percent of rural Americans have broadband internet access, which is 12 percentage points below urban Americans and 16 percentage points below suburban Americans.
“Those 12 and 16 percentage point differences translate into miles and miles of rural communities not covered by broadband,” says Tim Marema, editor of The Daily Yonder, a blog dedicated to covering issues in rural America.
According to broadbandnow.com, 79.9 percent of Wyoming residents have access to wired broadband 25 Mbps or faster, ranking it as the 44th most connected state. The site also notes Niobrara is the most underserved county in the state, followed by Crook and Sublette counties.
Coronavirus emphasizes need
Karney notes the coronavirus outbreak represents a real-time case study on the need for adequate rural broadband.
“Whether it is working or studying from home or access to adequate health care resources, the coronavirus outbreak has emphasized the need for better rural broadband connections across the country,” states Karney.
“We’re seeing more and more schools begin to shutter their doors and rely on internet access to continue to teach students. Unfortunately for rural students who do not have access, there are severe limitations for them to continue their education,” he adds.
Marema also says the years of lagging behind broadband infrastructure construction makes it tougher to come up with solutions for these families during the recent outbreak.
He explains although the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and internet providers have put in temporary fixes, such as removing data caps, increasing cellphone tower range and offering free access to low-income uses, these solutions won’t go far enough in the next few weeks to help rural families continue their jobs and education from home.
According to Karney, a recent bill, H.R. 4229, passed the House and Senate that will better direct funds to improve rural broadband.
“The Senate recently passed the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act,” Karney states. “This bill would improve the accuracy of broadband coverage maps and better direct federal funds for broadband buildout by creating more granular, transparent accountability within broadband access maps.”
Rural broadband in Wyoming
Although the recent coronavirus outbreak has highlighted the need for rural broadband, the fight for rural connectivity has been ongoing long before. In fact, according to USDA, Congress provided USDA $600 million in March 2018 to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America.
Through the months of May and July 2019, USDA received 146 applications requesting $1.4 billion in funding across three projects – 100 percent loans, 100 percent grants and loan-grant combinations.
In October, the FCC announced they would give a $12.1 million grant to three companies to expand broadband to rural parts of Wyoming.
The three companies receiving the FCC’s grant are Inventive Wireless of Nebraska, Tri County Telephone and Union Telephone to provide service to Albany, Big Horn, Niobrara, Park, Platte, Sublette and Uinta counties.
Hannah Bugas is the assistant editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.