Rural Broadband – An Anecdotal Look

I spent the better part of a decade and a half building geospatial applications in support of infrastructure analysis. Not infrastructure in the modern tech sense of containers and cloud providers and orchestration, but infrastructure in the classic sense of roads and rail and telecommunications. If we consider infrastructure through the lens of the ISO/OSI layered model, I spent a lot of time looking at the physical layer.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done that work full-time, but it’s hard to turn that thinking off. This post will a somewhat rambling and very anecdotal look at broadband infrastructure, its uneven penetration in rural areas, and the effect that uneven penetration can have on participation in the modern economy. I plan to revisit this topic as I am able to collect more data, analyze, and make this less anecdotal over time.

My parents hail from rural Alabama. The US Air Force brought them to the DC area well before I was born and I have lived in Maryland my entire life. I have a lot of family in Alabama and many of them have gravitated to the city of Demopolis. Like a lot of towns in that part of Alabama, the economic fortunes of Demopolis have taken a hit over the past few decades, despite having “good bones” in terms of physical infrastructure of the kind that mattered in the mid-20th century. Situated on the Tombigbee River, it is an international seaport with a lock and dam and is capable of handling cargo coming up from Mobile and the Gulf of Mexico. It has hosted various forms of light manufacturing, most recently a factory making baseball caps which has been shuttered and the work sent overseas. Its manufacturing history has left it with a robust electric power infrastructure. It is situated one hour south of a major state university. Yet, Demopolis is sidelined from the modern information economy due to lack of access to broadband.

According to the FCC Broadband Map, there is one small section of town (in green above) that has a single provider of speeds of 100Mbps down/10Mbps up. The surrounding yellow indicates lack of any internet access of that speed or better. There is generally universal coverage at speeds of 25 down/3 up or lower, as can be seen below.

Closer to home, just outside what is currently considered the DC area, Richmond County, Virginia is in comparatively better shape. According to the FCC, just over 58% of residents have access to one or more providers of 100 down/10 up, not including satellite. I have excluded satellite providers based on another anecdotal experience. We have acquaintances who live in a part of the county without access to any broadband other than satellite or wireless. In the former case, the provider imposes daily usage caps. In the latter case, signal makes even an unlimited plan unreliable.

This has become an issue during the current pandemic because the available bandwidth makes tele-medicine unworkable, so they must get out and drive to medical appointments – often two hours each way in the case of specialists. This is not an ideal situation when people should be staying put.

Finally, I’ll take a look at my home county. Although most of it is still fairly rural, it is home to a Navy base that houses a major Naval command. This base forms one end of a dumbbell which is balanced by Washington, DC on the other end. The corridor between these two offers many options for broadband access, though they get more limited as distance from DC increases and there are pockets with poor access even here, with approximately 3% having no access at any speed without satellite.

For the most part, availability of bandwidth isn’t really an issue, aside from gigabit speeds, which have actually become available in some areas since the June 2019 release of this data.

Like most jurisdictions, the pandemic forced an almost immediate transition to online learning. It’s been bumpy, but no one would ever say this has been the ideal way to roll out a technology platform. Even so, there are provisions for sending hard-copy packets to students who need them. Factoring out students with special needs that may get in the way of using online or digital tools, a large number of students are hampered not by lack of access, but the means of access.

There is an increasing number of families for whom the sole means of accessing the internet is via a phone. Even when other forms of access are available, they may not be chosen due to cost. Many of these same households don’t have a full computer – the mobile device is the only form factor available, aside from a tablet. In the event that computers are present, and that the mobile plan has unlimited data, many plans begin to throttle data throughput with excessive tethering or hotspotting. This obstacle course of connectivity issues makes full participation in digital learning difficult and could hamper future forms of digital engagement as students move into adulthood.

Although far from scientific, the above anecdotes illustrate how uneven investment in good broadband physical infrastructure can hinder participation in our evolving digital and tech economy, for localities as well as individuals. Could lack of bandwidth hinder the ability of a town like Demopolis to attract tech business and develop a compatible work force? Possibly, though it’s impossible to know if that has happened.

On an individual scale, we can see that lack of broadband can prevent access to services like tele-medicine and that the expense of both mobile broadband and wired internet access can lead people to choose options that become unreliable when other traditional services become unavailable and more heavy reliance on internet access is required. Each of us can probably find more individual examples of similar issues, but we can’t estimate the scale of a potential problem from those examples.

One of the emerging tropes of the late information age has been the reduction in the importance of geography. We can work anywhere we have internet, or so the story goes. But the Great Pause has shown us how many jobs remain for which that is not true. It has also shown us how untrue it is even in the tech industry. The gravitational pull of San Francisco, DC, and New York have created an extraction economy, drawing the resources of tech and talent away from much of the rest of the country, not only leaving many places unprepared for a digital world but also leaving them unready for a digital workforce and tech businesses that may otherwise choose these out-of-the-way places to call home.

The tech industry, of course, is not to blame for the digital divide between urban and rural America but, unlike classic industries centered around resources such as coal, steel, or oil, which tend to have strong geographic constraints, its primary resource, information, has no such limitation. This puts the tech industry in the position, with imagination and leadership, to expand the opportunities it offers to small, quiet regions far from its traditional enclaves.