Finding broadband

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 4/28/20

Drive down Callicoon’s Main Street and you’ll see cars parked at the closed library, everyone inside bending over their screens. In the age of social distancing, this is how you get …

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Finding broadband

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Drive down Callicoon’s Main Street and you’ll see cars parked at the closed library, everyone inside bending over their screens. In the age of social distancing, this is how you get broadband if you don’t have it at home.

Broadband offers a vast buffet of possibility, but in rural areas, it’s been slow to develop. It affects how our kids get schooled at home, whether sick people can use telehealth and how we stay tied to our jobs. And just because you have “high-speed internet,” that doesn’t necessarily translate into being able to use group conferencing software or other programs that make this new world work.

The reasons good broadband is less common here? Low population density is the biggest problem. It’s expensive for companies to bring high-speed internet to sparsely populated rural areas. “This barrier to entry greatly inhibits competition and limits the ability of ISPs to provide adequate high-speed coverage,” the Brookings Institution wrote in 2018.

Funding was made available through the Connect America Fund but it has not spread to all communities; and where it has, it often goes to satellite internet. While it’s often the only option in very rural areas, says Broadband Now, satellite internet is “typically slow,” is more expensive and has problems in bad weather. Broadband Now recommends fiber if possible.

Possibly as important are the regulations on pole attachment, says Matt Dunne, founder and executive director at the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI), a Vermont-based national organization supporting rural economic development and rural startups.

Pole attachments are the boxes and other odds and ends you see parked at the top of utility poles. They’re used by broadband providers and phone companies.

But state and local regulations control the rates, conditions and terms. There’s a conflict between the telecoms that want to maintain control of their poles and the principle of competition.

Rural areas could be left even further behind.

“In the age of the internet, digital economy jobs—the fastest growing and, in many cases, the highest paying—should be able to happen anywhere,” Dunne said. “But if you don’t have the foundation piece of high-speed internet, fiber to the home” it won’t happen.

The FCC has defined broadband as 25 Megabytes-per-second (Mbps) download speed, and three Mbps upload. While Zoom says you can have “high-quality video calling” at one Mbps, better quality demands 2.5 Mbps to receive and three to send.

Higher download speeds were great once upon a time, but, Dunne says, “it’s no longer adequate to receive information in one direction.” Businesses need to upload too. If you’re trying to work from home, that translates into group conferencing, transferring large files, or putting a video of your accomplishments on YouTube.

Broadband Now notes that over half of our residents have 25 Mbps for downloading, but it’s difficult to find upload speed figures.

Most of the existing distribution systems have shared bandwidth and can be overwhelmed if people are all streaming at once. Like, say, while we’re staying home.

But it is possible to bring high-quality broadband to rural areas without going through federal programs.

CORI, Dunne said, has worked with communities throughout the country to help develop broadband networks.

At the state level, “New York has been pushing really hard to fund fiber to the home,” he said. Last year, Sullivan County legislators approved an experiment in wireless broadband and this March, Sen. Jen Metzger introduced legislation to close the digital gap.

Pennsylvania’s rural counties are still struggling with slow internet, according to Broadband Now. Restore PA, a $4.5 billion program introduced by Gov. Tom Wolf, would build and improve broadband infrastructure statewide. Its future is uncertain.

What can be done? Municipalities can work with small phone companies, Dunne said. Create a regulatory environment that will allow community broadband to flourish. Allow these businesses to pursue municipal bonds to pay for it all. “I encourage people to reach out to their elected officials, to demand the regulatory changes needed.”

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