“Silver Buckshot” Needed to Crack Rural Digital Divide

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“We’ve been talking about the rural digital divide for about 20 years. New technology always comes to other areas before rural,” said Michael Santorelli, Director, Advanced Communications Law & Policy Institute at New York Law School, during a panel discussion Tuesday on closing the digital divide.

Santorelli cited an FCC report that pegs the digital divide as affecting 19 million Americans, defining broadband internet speed as 25 mpbs download/3mbps upload. 

Indiana State Senator Eric Koch said, “This is one of those issues where there is no silver bullet” to solve the issue. Rather, “It will take some silver buckshot” to fix. “If there were an easy answer it would have been solved years ago.”

In 2014, Indiana formed a rural broadband working group. Just defining broadband and what it means to be “served” took up several initial meetings, according to Koch.

South Dakota Public Utilities Commission Vice Chairman Chris Nelson is glad to see the FCC is making an effort to improve the Form 477 data collected from carriers about broadband availability. The most recent data is from 2017, which is a challenge, said Koch. 

“We know what it was 19 months ago. We don’t know what it is today,” meaning broadband availability. Better mapping is needed to direct broadband subsidies to areas that need it the most, Nelson said.

WISPA President/CEO Claude Aiken noted that government subsidies tend to be designed for mobile WiFi or mobile wireless providers, whereas Wireless Internet Service Provider Association members, “tend to be neither, so having a more inclusive approach to rural broadband is one thing we haven’t historically tried at the national level.”

Asked what would be most impactful, Koch said a mixture of legislative and policy changes could help. “Our governor [got] involved in expedited permitting and access to rights-of-way,” which is producing “positive results” in Indiana.

WISPs haven’t taken much public money even as they see more state grant dollars becoming available, according to Aiken. Early results are mixed for WISPs. “Some members have been able to navigate state level grant/subsidy process, but many more have not,” said Aiken. WISPA members are small and usually have 500 or fewer customers. “They don’t have time to navigate a complex form or process for funding.”

WISPA is, “happy to help folks understand how government dollars can be stretched further,” he explained. Aiken cited as a success story last year’s FCC reverse auction for distribution of USF support to unserved communities. He characterized fixed wireless as a “huge winner,” including smaller WISPs, due in large part to cost-effectiveness of technology to serve rural areas. Comments? Email Us. 

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

July 31, 2019        

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