A recent Harris poll revealed that 42% of men in the United Kingdom rated having access to the internet as being more important than either food or shelter. But access for those living in rural America may be not only more important, but vital in order for these communities to thrive. The constant barrier, however, seems to be twofold: that rural communities are often located geographically far away from wired internet provider companies, making it expensive to build infrastructure and run cable to them, and they are sparsely populated, making the building of infrastructure financially non-feasible.
But those living in rural communities who are currently without internet access may have a ray of hope: the community internet provider. These companies, whose spirit of entrepreneurship created small communications centers in their communities to provide internet access to them have popped up over the years. Although small, these companies offer very affordable packages, and to wide areas of rural America.
However, it was thanks to help from the Universal Service Fund that allowed these companies to be created in the first place. The USF’s mandate, which involves the thinking that the country cannot prosper without everyone in it being connected by the internet, has many benefits to citizens. For one, it allows rural areas – the nation’s largest producers of food and energy – the ability to be connected with their urban counterparts and the consumers which reside there. This not only allows rural citizens to sell their wares to urban consumers, but also allows them to take advantage of the many online benefits enjoyed by urban residents, such as online learning and telemedicine.
An unfortunate truth is that cuts to the USF program are resulting in rural internet access rates being increased and the need for cost recovery mechanisms. Many experts are warning that internet rates could be double what they are now in the next two years if support doesn’t continue. And disaster could be the result for communities who are still relying on traditional phone lines for their income.
So what can be the solutions for communities like this if USF funding doesn’t continue? Perhaps some kind of policy which ensures that every American is connected by means beyond the traditional telephone line. And perhaps, also focusing on the progress that has been made by rural providers, and duplicating that success on a larger scale. It’s also being suggested that the focus be not on what will be needed to provide rural broadband, but what will be required to keep rural America connected and connected affordably.
Rural providers must also realize that they still have work to do. After all, more investment will always be needed, because internet service networks will always need to be upgraded, perhaps now more than ever. Broadband speeds are increasing, and so will demand for bandwidth. Experts stress that something must be done before the lack of funding results in a backslide into economic distress, which would be a shame, considering all of the progress that has been made to this point.