Mapping Broadband in Western North Carolina

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The Rural Broadband Crisis:
How Bad Is It? How Do We Solve It?

Last August, the FCC estimated that 19 million Americans lack broadband access via a wireline (cable, DSL, or fiber) at minimum-recommended speeds of 4 Mb per second download and 1 Mb per second upload. Rural Americans comprise the majority (14.5 million) of this unserved population.

In addition, about 100 million Americans – rural and urban – have access but don't use broadband, often because they can't afford it.

Many rural residents pay premium prices for broadband, but the service is not much better than dial-up. One Kentucky resident says “it's like paying for a car that's settin' on blocks.

Instead of broadband “haves” and “have-nots,” we have a growing problem of “have some, but need more.”

Rural Problem, National Impact

This isn't just a “rural” problem. The broadband deficit is a serious drag on the national economy, say economists like Hans Kuttner of the Hudson Institute.

Inadequate broadband incurs “opportunity costs.” Alarmingly, these costs are accelerating in rural areas due to a growing disparity between urban and rural broadband speeds, says Kuttner.

For example, it's increasingly common for urban companies and institutions to enjoy broadband speeds – via fiber-optic networks – of 100 Mbps or more. These ultrafast networks support innovations that are transforming how Americans do business, advance their education, and manage their personal lives. Broadband innovation is happening so fast, says Kuttner, that rural residents – even those with some broadband – are falling further behind.

The cost to our national economy is steep. Take college graduation rates. Since 1990, the gap between urban and rural college graduation rates grew three full percentage points: from 9.5 to 12.6 percent.

Each percentage point represents $625 billion in lost wages and economic activity – a $2 trillion drag on the US economy, says Kuttner. With higher education opportunities increasingly found online, a growing urban-rural broadband gap will increase the drag on the US economy.

Consider healthcare. Urban elderly average 10.9 visits to the doctor per year; the average the rural elderly is 5.5. As our ability to diagnose and treat disease grows, this service gap will worsen. Telemedicine and in-home patient monitoring can close this gap, but only where sufficient broadband capacity exists.

Broadband is transforming agriculture. Remote-sensing and monitoring, GPS, and access to real-time market data herald the era of “precision agriculture.”

The machine we call a “tractor” is becoming “a mobile geospatial data-collection platform with the capacity to receive, use, sense, store, and transmit data.” Small growers, producers and artisans are developing “locavore” markets for specialty crops, homemade goods, and handmade crafts – but only where robust broadband exists.

Rural America, Emerging Market?

Macon, MO., pop. 5,400, is home to Onshore Outsourcing, a provider of computer programming for US firms which outsource IT work. Onshore's business model is tied to rural Missouri's lower cost-of-living and stable work force. Its American employees don't have the language and cultural barriers which often plague foreign competitors.

With “world-class” broadband, says Kuttner, rural America could become a “middle-shore” alternative for US firms, creating new markets for US goods and services. Ironically, without robust broadband in rural America, foreign competitors are a “closer” option for US companies.

Bringing robust broadband to rural America would be like signing a free trade agreement with a global emerging market, says Kuttner.

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Additional Reading

Rural broadband access still lags cities,” Daily Yonder, June 9, 2013.

"How ‘white spaces’ could change the world," Tech Central, May 19, 2013.

"Utilities want piece of FCC's $4.5 billion rural broadband push." Greentech Media, May 29, 2013.

California gets first commercial 'white space' high-speed Internet,” C-Net, April 22, 20 13.

Obama's new FCC pick could determine the future of the Internet,” by David Corn, Mother Jones, March 26, 2013.

Broadband 101: Guide to the Basics of Broadband Terminology,” Institute for Local Self-Reliance, March 2013.

FCC to probe rural phone problems,” The Hill, Feb. 7, 2013.

Moving from broadband scarcity to broadband abundance,” Christopher Mitchell, Seattle Times, March 11, 2013.

Expand wireless Wi-Fi access to public airwaves,” Sacramento Bee editorial, Feb. 16, 2013.

The Broadband Factor: How connectivity expands economic and community development” by Kristin Peterson, Huffington Post, February 4, 2013.

The broadband-deprived study at McDonald's” by Anton Troianovski, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 30, 2013.

NC at the bottom of the broadband barrel” by Christopher Mitchell and Todd O'Boyle, Raleigh News & Observer, Jan. 28, 2013.

How to get high-speed Internet to all Americans” by Susan Crawford, New York Times, Jan. 24, 2013.

Co-ops make rural broadband possible,” Electric Co-op Today, Dec. 17, 2012.

Book talk by by Susan Crawford, author of “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age,” at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Dec. 12, 2012.

Break Up the Telecom Cartels,” New York Times op-ed by David Cay Johnston, Nov. 27, 2012.

Many rural AT&T customers still lack high-speed Internet access despite merger promise,” by Gerry Smith, Huffington Post, Nov. 12, 2012.

Like paying for a car that's sittin' on blocks,” radio story on rural broadband in Appalachia from community radio WMMT, Whitesburg, KY, Nov. 8, 2012.

Broadband for Rural America: Economic Impacts & Economic Opportunities
Hudson Institute policy study by Hanns Kuttner, October 2012.

Rural broadband in serious trouble,” DSL Reports, Oct. 16, 2012.

C-SPAN panel on “Rural Telecommunications” featuring Hanns Kuttner, Oct. 15, 2012.

FCC Report: Thousands in WNC lack broadband access,” MAIN, Sept. 12, 2012.

White space broadband as a white knight for rural America,” GigaOM, July 15, 2012.

Rural broadband via nonprofit networks,” by Wally Bowen, Raleigh News & Observer, Feb. 6, 2012.

Score! for two rural broadband teams,” by Craig Settles, The Daily Yonder, Jan. 26, 2012.

National Broadband Plan

Broadband access