What Cable Operators Are Doing to Close the Digital Divide in Rural America

rural broadband

On Tuesday, NCTA in cooperation with the Rural Broadband Caucus will gather policymakers and stakeholders to discuss the successful strategies and projects that cable operators are using to close the digital divide in rural America. There isn't a more critical time to hold this conversation than the present. While most American households can access a broadband connection, six percent of all Americans and 26 percent in rural America remain unconnected to high internet speeds (25 Mbps or more) and are missing out on the promises and benefits the internet offers. Extending robust broadband connections to these homes is one of America's top communications priorities.

Last week, NCTA President & CEO Michael Powell testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation about the cable industry's rural roots and its commitment to expand coverage to hard-to-reach areas. The cable industry was created in 1948 as a rural service, to bring the magic of TV to customers in the hills and hollows who couldn't receive a broadcast signal. Today, we are following a similar track in extending access to gigabit broadband service to 93 percent of our cable footprint, or 80 percent of U.S. households, including households in rural towns and communities across America. Here are some of the things we are doing to help close the remaining gap.  

In Washington, DC, we're working with Congress and the FCC to make broadband support programs more efficient by improving current maps that identify served and unserved areas of the country.  

The FCC's existing maps overstate broadband coverage, leaving some areas ineligible to receive some federal broadband deployment subsidies even when the majority of households in a given census block lack service. To fix this flaw and update the maps, NCTA is urging the FCC to refine its current data collection process so as to allow providers to submit a more granular data collection model called "shapefile mapping," which has been proposed in both the House and Senate. This kind of mapping is supported not only by NCTA, but also by the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Connected Nation, and Competitive Carriers Association because it will efficiently and quickly provide the information needed to create more accurate maps that will encourage a more efficient and effective use of government resources..

Around the country, we're developing new strategies to improve the economics of operating broadband networks in rural America.

Cable operators are using innovative technologies to connect areas where it would otherwise be too cost prohibitive to lay fiber. In the Dakotas, for example, Midco is using fixed wireless technology to extend broadband service up to 40 miles from the last wired point.  

In addition, we're partnering with local communities to aggregate demand. Eagle Communications turned the small town of St. Francis, Kansas into a gigabit community through its partnership with the local government and businesses, as various stakeholders worked together to create a sustainable revenue stream.

In states and local communities, we're partnering with governments to dedicate scarce resources to places they are most needed—unserved areas. 

In some hard-to-reach, density-challenged, unserved areas, it simply is not economic for providers to deploy and operate broadband networks without government support. In those cases, we support technology-neutral programs that focus taxpayer dollars on areas that are most in need. Our companies want to be part of the solution to closing the digital divide, and have been partnering with federal and state governments to do so. For example, GCI in Alaska launched its Terra Project with an RUS loan/grant and now provides 84 villages and more than 45,000 residents with access to terrestrial broadband. Similarly, Midco in the Dakotas and Minnesota is using its Connect America funding to expand its fixed wireless service to previously unserved homes and businesses. Other companies like Charter, Comcast, Cox, and Mediacom have partnered with their states to extend their network to unserved areas within and around their existing coverage area. 

We look forward to working with policymakers to help shrink the digital divide and ensure that unserved rural areas get access to reliable broadband. We are committed to supporting and implementing innovative solutions to reach those who still lack broadband today. With the right policies in place and with industry and government working in partnership toward a common purpose, we believe that we can make progress toward our shared goal of bringing the benefits of broadband to everyone.