Billions to connect everyone to high-speed Internet could still fall short | ET REALITY


Throughout far southeastern Oklahoma, where sprawling cattle ranches and empty storefronts dot the landscape, the lack of high-speed Internet service has become a daily frustration for residents.

Wanda Finley, a fourth-grade teacher in Sawyer, Oklahoma, said the satellite service at her home was often too slow to use and sometimes went down for days. She cannot schedule doctor appointments, request prescription refills or pay her bills online until she gets to work. Almost every weekend, she drives about 40 minutes to school to prepare her weekly lesson plan, because at home a single web page can take a few minutes to load.

I hope this changes,” said Finley, 60, sitting at home on a recent afternoon.

If President Biden has his way, Ms. Finley and her neighbors will benefit from a $42.5 billion program to expand fast Internet access throughout the country. The funding, which was included in the 2021 infrastructure bill, is part of an initiative that has big ambitions: providing access to “high-speed, affordable and reliable Internet” for all homes and businesses by 2030.

The effort aims to close the “digital divide” by ensuring that all Americans can connect to the fast Internet, given the critical role it plays in economic opportunity, education, health care and other areas. The Biden administration has also invested more than $22 billion in other programs to build broadband networks and reduce the cost of Internet bills.

The lack of broadband infrastructure is particularly problematic in rural areas, where Internet service is often unavailable or limited. About 24 percent of Americans in rural areas lack high-speed Internet service as defined by the new program, compared to 1.7 percent in urban areas. Research has shown that Internet connectivity can boost economic growth in rural areashelping to create jobs, attract workers and increase home values.

Attempts to make broadband reach everyone are not new: The federal government has already invested billions in efforts that have had mixed results. Biden administration officials have said the new program, along with other federal and state funds, would be enough to finally reach everyone who lacks high-speed internet access.

But some state officials and industry analysts remain cautious and have expressed concerns about whether the funds will achieve all of the administration’s goals.

In part, this is due to the enormous cost of deploying broadband infrastructure in rural and sparsely populated areas. It can be expensive to run fiber optic cables when houses are far apart and terrain challenges make excavation difficult. Labor shortage could increase increase construction costs and delay projects.

According to data from the Federal Communications Commission, there are 8.5 million “unserved” and 3.6 million “underserved” locations nationwide. Each state received a minimum of $100 million of the $42.5 billion package, plus additional funds based on the number of unserved locations. States should first address areas that have insufficient or no internet service, and then can use funds to build in underserved areas. The remaining funds can be used in community institutions and then issues such as affordability.

The success of the initiative is expected vary between states. Some, like Louisiana and Virginia, have already said that they plan to cover all neglected or insufficiently served places. Others have expressed more skepticism on the scope of funding.

Edyn Rolls, Oklahoma’s director of broadband strategy, said the state, with its large rural population, was unlikely to have enough funding to reach all underserved places, and covering all underserved areas could be a challenge.

State officials said recent versions of the FCC map show that the Internet service available throughout the country had improved, but could still be improved exaggerated coverage. Local governments and providers will be able to challenge existing data, but state allocations are already in place, meaning funding would have to be stretched even further if officials identify more locations lacking high-speed service.

Rolls said there was a “real potential” that such a scenario could play out, adding that officials have heard from residents who say there is “definitely an overkill of the service.” And while he said fiber would be a better long-term investment, a combination of technologies would need to be implemented to reach all the unserved places.

Even with subsidies, companies may not find it profitable to build everywhere. Robert Osborn, director of California communications divisionsaid that some localities in the state, which is geographically diverse with Large areas of difficult access., they are not likely to receive any interest from the supplier. To attract bidders, Osborn said the state could in some cases reduce the requirement that vendors cover at least 25 percent of a project’s price, but that risks taking money away from other projects.

“It’s not as simple as giving money to a major Internet service provider and saying, ‘Go build there,’” Osborn said.

Evan Feinman, director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration $42.5 billion programHe said officials were confident that federal and state funding would be enough to cover all unserved and underserved places, meaning all Americans would have access to Internet speeds of at least 100 megabits per second for downloads and 20 megabits per second. for loads.

Still, he said some projects could take up to five years to complete and anticipated construction would not begin until late 2024. While he said most locations would receive fiber connections, he expected others to be covered by fixed wireless or satellite technology. .

The satellite is not considered reliable under the program’s rules, but Feinman said some services were better than others, and that states could use funds for equipment and satellite services for a handful of remote locations. Starlink, a satellite technology made by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, is considered more reliable, but the hardware costs hundreds of dollars and can take months to get off waiting lists.

The extent of the funding will be important to Americans who have long lacked access to high-speed Internet. Ms. Finley said she wanted to assign homework that involved more online research because it would accelerate her fourth graders’ learning. But many could not complete it. Only three of the 20 students in her classroom have sufficient Internet access at home. The rest have no service or can only use their parents’ cell phones.

A few miles away, in Fort Towson, Oklahoma, which has about 600 residents, Mayor Tami Barnes said people were constantly complaining about internet speeds, which she called a “huge drag” on the local economy. . On a recent afternoon, the busiest part of town was the parking lot of a convenience store and gas station. The other two main businesses are a steakhouse and a Dollar General store.

Although Internet bills are a financial burden for many families, Barnes said more residents would likely attend their medical appointments online if they had high-speed access, because many often travel up to three hours to see specialized doctors.

Other states with low population density, such as Montana, could also face more challenges. In Broadwater County, Montana, where many homes are separated by vast stretches of grassy land and some are hidden in mountainous areas, residents said the lack of quick service made it difficult to do things like work from home.

Denise Thompson, 58, who operates a cattle ranch with her husband in Townsend, Montana, said she wanted to start a website to ship more meat products, but wasn’t sure how she could operate it at home because it depended on the high temperature. from your phone. she place to access the Internet and her connection was slow. She hasn’t tried to stream a movie in about a year because she usually gets stuck in the buffer for minutes.

His house sits in a ravine between two tall hills and his closest neighbor is about three miles away, so his only other option is satellite service. Even with the new federal money, Thompson said she was skeptical about whether she would see more reliable options.

“I really don’t expect that to happen,” he said.

County Commissioner Lindsey Richtmyer said many locations would be classified as underserved, but they actually receive slower service than the FCC map reflects. County officials are encouraging residents to take state speed tests in hopes of identifying much of the area as unserved.

Estimates have found that Montana We need more than 1.2 billion dollars. deploy fiber to all unserved and underserved locations, a shortfall of more than $500 million. Misty Ann Giles, director of the Montana Department of Administration, said it would take a combination of technologies to reach everyone, because fiber deployment could cost the state up to $300,000 in some places.

“Obviously more money would have been appreciated,” he said. “But we’re going to figure it out and make it work.”

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