According to the FCC, 19 million Americans, mostly in rural areas, still lack access to high-speed internet service. Worldwide, many people living in rural areas lack access to even basic internet service. With internet access becoming increasingly vital to economic growth, areas lacking access are rapidly being left behind. However, in the United States and abroad, both government agencies and entrepreneurs have been working to close the gap.
Why Broadband Matters
While users can still access some basic services such as e-mail and some websites on dial-up internet, most modern advances, such as streaming video and the Internet of Things, require high-speed connections to function well. Additionally, access to telemedicine and online educational and job opportunities usually require access to high-speed connections. Residents of rural areas who want to become business owners are also disadvantaged by lack of access to high-speed internet, which also makes it difficult for these areas to attract businesses from outside, further depressing the local job market. Rural residents without access to broadband represent a loss of potential customers for businesses who rely on online sales or who sell services that require high-speed access to function.
Agribusiness has been a particularly hard-hit sector of rural America. Precision ag technology, considered to be one of the most promising ways for ag businesses to combat losses due to climate change, is just one technology that could help boost this struggling industry. However, the implementation of this technology requires reliable internet access to be in place first. It is estimated that an initial investment of $35 to $40 billion in this technology could return as much as $65 billion annually to the U.S. economy.
What the Government Has Done to Address the Issue
Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to report annually on whether broadband is being deployed to all Americans in “a reasonable and timely fashion.” Through their efforts, broadband access has been expanded to over 80% of the U.S. population. The Connect America Fund has helped 5.6 million people gain access between 2016-2017 and the FCC has been working to increase access for low-income Americans through the Mobility Fund and Lifeline program.
However, with so many people still with no affordable access, the FCC has determined that they have not met their mandate thus far and more work needs to be done. In rural areas, 14.5 million people, representing nearly a quarter of the rural population in the United States, are still without broadband access. In tribal areas, that figure is as high as a third of the population. Additionally, approximately 100 million Americans who have access do not subscribe, many for economic reasons.
Attempts to further address the lack of access caused by economic disadvantage have been made through programs such as the Federal E-Rate program. This program subsidizes broadband access for libraries and schools. The geographical challenges presented by some rural and remote areas are being addressed by attempts to expand wireless access.
How Entrepreneurs Are Bridging the Gaps
The FCC has made great strides in expanding access, however, even by their own metrics, it hasn’t been enough. Entrepreneurs, such as telecommunications giant Sprint, have been partnering with projects such as the 1Million Project, to help expand access to communities the government has not yet reached. Because it has been found that students who lack internet access at home are at a significant academic disadvantage compared to their peers, the 1Million Project has sought to provide free devices and internet access to students in low-income areas. As their name implies, their end goal is to provide access to 1 million high school students. Since their founding in August 2017, they have connected a total of 226,000 students at more than 1900 high schools, in 33 different states and hope to add at least 100,000 more students in the project’s third year.
Efforts have also been underway internationally. Over 1 billion people lack internet access worldwide. With the help of investors, such as NJF Capital, Swarm Technologies, has been developing the world’s smallest two-way communication satellites, to create a low-cost, space-based network that will allow users to connect to the Internet of Things from anywhere in the world. NJF Capital founder, Nicole Junkermann, has said that Swarm, “are bringing something truly transformative to the global satellite industry, enabling low-cost access to the internet across each and every continent.”
Efforts, such as those by Swarm Technologies, are vital to addressing worldwide food shortages by enabling modern technology to be deployed in rural agricultural operations. Increased connectivity should also bolster transportation industries and allow people in rural areas to connect to vital services such as educational institutions and telemedicine.
There is still a long way to go in expanding internet access to rural and low-income people. However, partnerships between the government, entrepreneurs and charitable initiatives have helped to narrow the gap and will be vital to closing it in the future.