Earlier this week, NCTA, in partnership with the Rural Broadband Caucus, hosted a panel discussion in Washington, DC, where member companies shared programs and initiatives they are implementing to expand high-speed broadband networks, including gigabit service, to underserved areas. "If we're going to make any progress in revitalizing rural America, then broadband is just bottomline essential. It is not a red state/blue state deal," said Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT), co-chair of the caucus, in his opening remarks. "It's about making that decision we made in the 1930s when we electrified America. We're doing it now in the 21st century where we're saying, 'No second class citizen in rural America.' We have to have the same type of service that we have in the urban areas." Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA) and fellow co-chair followed up by emphasizing how important public-private partnerships with local, state and federal governments are in making the construction and deployment of broadband networks in rural areas a reality. "It can't be all government, and it can't be all industry," said Wittman.
Below are a few highlights from the discussion about what member companies are doing to create partnerships, the innovative technology they are using to deliver broadband, and the work that still needs to be done to close the digital divide in rural America:
Beginning in 2016, Cox expanded a fiber optic network (5.7 miles) in northern Gloucester County, Virginia, with the help of the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI), a partnership between local governments and private providers to deploy broadband services. By 2017, the Gloucester County project was complete and now more than 119 residents and businesses have access to high-speed broadband. The partnership has proven to be a game changer for the county, as residents now can start their own home-based businesses or use telecommuting options. The bonus, said Barrett Stork, Cox Director of Government and Regulatory Affairs, was that once Cox upgraded its networks, this community also had access to one gigabit service. "That is one of the huge benefits of a project like this where we're partnering with a locality because they're going to reap the benefits of everything we continue to do with our network moving forward," said Stork.
In Massachusetts, Comcast recently partnered with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute at MassTech to expand gigabit service to nine western towns in the state. MBI's grant of $4 million in state funds supplemented Comcast's investment to construct broadband extensions of these areas from its already existing networks. Comcast Vice President of Government & Regulatory Affairs Terry Ellis noted, "When you have a public-private partnership, that shifts the burden from the government to the local provider. From there, you're providing the match funding to get the network built. That private provider will then operate and maintain that network going forward so that the taxpayers are protected from having to additionally subsidize that network ..." Comcast also makes sure that unserved areas are "tightly defined," meaning that areas with little or no broadband service (less than 10 Mbps) are targeted effectively. Ellis added that it's important for a provider to be "technology neutral," or flexible when it comes to offering more than one type of technology to deliver gigabit speeds.
Eagle Communications is a small provider of 60 communities across Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado that is transforming communities within its footprint, especially the town of St. Francis in northwestern Kansas. The citizens of St. Francis actually approached Eagle, as they were eager to have gigabit broadband access in their community. Eagle worked with the community to aggregate customers in their town, and partnered with city leaders and businesses to deliver the quantity of customers needed to justify the costs, time and effort, and long-term sustainability to build the network. Eagle Chairman & CEO Gary Shorman said that it takes three things at Eagle to make this type of project happen: 1. An "interconnection," or that middle mile that goes from the community to the internet. 2. An infrastructure and a provider that is willing to upgrade. 3. People who want to make it happen. "Part of what we are looking at in this caucus group is making sure we can partner with all of our companies in those communities that actually want to make it happen," said Shorman.
(To read more about Eagle's story, check out our new web page here.)
In 2017, Iowa became the first fully gigabit state in the country when Mediacom deployed one gigabit service to its 309 communities. Since then, Mediacom has deployed gigabit service to 98 percent of its footprint across 22 states. Iowa was actually rated #1 in 2018 by U.S. News as the best state to live, and ultra-fast broadband access had a lot to do with their top ranking. Mediacom Senior Manager of Government Relations Kate Hotle said that Mediacom has a long history of bringing “small-town America” up to speed, but the challenges in building out their networks in remote areas remain. Some of these include high costs, having to pay competitors to attach to their poles, crossing railroads during buildouts to reach customers, and obtaining the appropriate permits to continue deployment. All of these factors can delay the delivery of services. "And getting to that last mile will cost more money than we are able to get for our return on investment. I think that's why this conversation is so important because we can't reach those last few homes without public-private partnerships," said Hotle.
Currently in trials, Charter is looking to bring fixed wireless technology to deliver fast internet speeds to rural areas where rough terrain, weather, and small populations make it cost prohibitive to lay fiber. Since 2017, Charter has been testing this technology in the 3.5GHz band in the hopes of connecting more unserved Americans. "We're looking to see how we can use new wireless technologies to expand the reach of our network," explained Charter Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Colleen King. Charter also used C-Band—mid-band spectrum—to connect a farm in Iowa and to build a smart farm platform. The farmer could monitor his farm from an app on his phone, check on his hogs, monitor humidity, etc. "It's a great proof of concept of how you can use all these wireless technologies and expand beyond our normal fiber network, and how we can make people's lives better," said King. "But spectrum is key to making the solution work," she added. Charter is currently working with the FCC to open up the possibilities for unlicensed spectrum, and to find rules that will benefit everybody and allow providers to put these technologies to work.
Midco's footprint has some of the most rural regions in the country, and along with that, many stories of how high-speed internet is improving businesses and the lives of residents. Fixed wireless, in particular, is giving farmers who work anywhere from grain elevators to water towers seamless connectivity that allows the agricultural economy to thrive through its ability to reach areas 40 miles from the nearest wireline. Midco currently has 4,000 fixed wireless customers and it continues to build off of its fiber network. Recently, the ISP was awarded $40 million from the Connect America Fund to bring fixed wireless service to more unserved areas where it is too costly to deploy fiber. "We're talking about very geographic and weather-challenged areas, like trying to run fiber links through Minnesota granite cliffs. It's not easy or cost effective to get wireline service to all those folks," explained Midco Senior Director of Government Relations Justin Forde. That's where fixed wireless continues to make all the difference.