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Mark Warburton (US) - Connecting the Frontier: How to Reach Remote Communities

Disparities and needs

We imagine the US to be a cornerstone of Internet connectivity. Many of its cities (San Francisco being a stand out example) are known for their online innovation and exemplary Internet speed. However, Pando Networks - a cloud delivery company that specializes in the optimization of online delivery of games, video and software - have published a study on 4 million Internet users across the USA. There is no surprise that California - home of Silicon Valley and the 8th largest economy in the world - has one of the highest average download speeds.

Yet not all is well in the US; the study shows substantive disparities in download performances between the high-flying coastal states and rural communities in the Mid-West. These findings are supported by previous surveys on broadband companies in the US: demonstrating the lack of integrated rural communities. Because of the uneven results of download speeds, the US average speed is 4.8Mbp; slower than Canada, parts of Western Europe, Japan, and Korea.

In respect to rural communities, you might ask: so what? There is a common assumption that farmers don’t really need the Internet. Yet a study that looked at the views of rural people (as far back as 2003) showed that more than 50% of farm operators used the Internet, while 1/3 of rural workers were using it in their place of work.  And yet there has been an on-going battle to fund rural Internet connectivity.

The private sector is tentative when investing in telecommunications infrastructure within remote, geographically challenging areas. Rural areas oppose inner city areas in their density, which makes it easier to connect them, and the networks needed are smaller and cheaper to build and maintain. This is in contrast to a rural area which requires more equipment per customer. However, even with this challenge, the demand for services continues to grow.

In terms of federal funding, rural Internet projects have to battle to maintain support, especially after recent major cuts in public spending.  The US government promises to maintain rural Internet programs in spite of these cuts. The US Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service provided $22.3 million this year to expand high-speed Internet in rural areas; laying 800 miles of fiber optic cable. Yet funding remains in the balance. The Agriculture Appropriations Act, which was passed the US House in June this year, will cut much of this financial backing for the programs.

Exceptions to the rule: ways forward

Although the ‘Wild West’ is now the stuff of silver screen, romantic mythologizing , its essential characteristic, ‘frontiers’, still exists. Frontier literally means ‘a geographical area near or beyond a boundary’. It can be seen to manifest in areas where people communally live outside of the conventional city, suburbia or motorway sprawl.

An intriguing example of a frontier that exists today is that of the Havasupai Reservation (Supai Village) which is located at the bottom of the Grand Canyon in the state of Arizona. The only way to reach this tribe is an eight mile hike, a precarious donkey ride down steep rock, or by helicopter.  A difficult place for the reach of broadband for sure, but an important one none-the-less. Saying this, a USDA Rural Development Telecommunications Program has provided a Community Connect Grant that will subsidize this remote community. With the grant, the community can now plan the logistics of goods circulation and transport to and from the Canyon’s base.

Alternatively, the Universal State Fund (USF) - a fund that aims to subsidize the cost of basic telecom services in both high-cost and rural areas - is looking to redirect the $8 billion fund towards expanding broad Internet access. The director of research for the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), Mark Cooper, suggests there is an expectation that content providers pay into the USF as providers of toll and business phone services also contribute.  As Mark states, "The exact same logic that was in use in the old days for whacking a toll could actually be used to impose legitimate costs on high-bandwidth users and say 'that's discretionary consumption".

So it appears steps are being made to support the more remote denizens of the USA. Only time will tell as to whether all communities will be catered for. Although there is some way to go before download speeds match foreign countries and the reach is fully operative, the debate will continue on how best to assimilate people still living at the frontier, outside of connectivity.

By Mark Warburton, editorial assistant, IDG Connect

 

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