Thursday, May 28, 2015

Broadband and Tech

Figure 1. Broadband-related funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) portion.

The “digital divide” - the gap in household broadband adoption between rural and urban areas – is an important topic fur rural America.  We have written before that the gap has actually widened over time for the rural elderly and poor.  We have also shown that high broadband adoption rates are associated with economic growth in rural counties.  But, what policies should be put in place to help address this gap? 

The current federal policy prescription is to subsidize infrastructure (i.e., provide fiber / cable lines or wireless service to underserved areas).  In fact, of the $7.2 billion made available for broadband funding during the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), over 90% was focused on providing infrastructure.  Other programs, like Community Connect grants through USDA, also focus almost explicitly on infrastructure. 

However, our new study suggests that although this “supply-side” focus is still important, significantly more attention (and funding) should be given to encouraging broadband adoption in rural areas – particularly in places that already have existing infrastructure.   

We first used Current Population Survey (CPS) data to document that the urban-rural broadband adoption gap was 13 percentage points in 2003 versus 12 percentage points in 2011. In other words, the gap remained almost unchanged even though there was a significant increase in household broadband adoption rates in both urban and rural households between 2003 and 2011.

Figure 2. Household broadband adoption rates by metro / non-metro status, 2003 and 2011. The gap between metropolitan and rural areas changed little over the eight-year period.

The population survey also asked why residents didn't use broadband. Interestingly, “No need” was the #1 response for rural households in both years (with rates over 40%), whereas “not available” represented less than 5% of the responses in 2011.  Note also that the “no need” response has increased over time while the “not available” response has decreased.  This gives some preliminary evidence that it is the demand for broadband (and not supply) that is driving the gap.  However, the National Broadband Map also tells us that rural areas have lower levels of infrastructure available to them – and this may still be contributing to the gap. 

Figure 3. Primary reason for non-adoption of broadband in non-metropolitan households. "No need" was the most frequently cited reason for not using broadband.

Broadband and Tech

Photo courtesy of Karen Fasimpaur A machine digs a trench for a 500-foot-long line to connect the author's home to the telephone network. The line also carries an Internet connection via DSL -- a service not many of the authori's neighbors have access to.

When I moved from Los Angeles to a very rural homesite on the Arizona-New Mexico border, I knew I’d be making some trade-offs, especially as it related to telecommunications. In LA, I was accustomed to high bandwidth and instant access to services, which was important to my work in educational technology and online community building.

Where I was moving, I knew that there was no cellular service for about 50 miles and wasn’t sure what kind of Internet service I’d have available. I knew that most pieces of land in my area had only dial-up or satellite Internet available. While I wasn’t sure that would be feasible for my work, I took a leap of faith and hoped things would work out.

Imagine my delight when the property I fell in love with just happened to be one of the few that had digital subscriber line (DSL) as an option. This type of service delivers Internet over conventional phone lines, and its availability has to do with how far you are from a central switching location. 

So the first step was to get a copper phone line run from the closest phone box, which was out on the dirt road about 500 feet from our homesite, to the house. While running electrical power lines to the house proved cost prohibitive and resulted in opting for solar instead, the phone lines were much easier.

I learned that there are federal standards that classify telephones as a Title II service and assign carriers of last resort, which are required to provide telephone service to any customer that requests it. (Unfortunately, over 20 states have deregulated telephone service, removing requirements for common carriers Title II regulation. This has resulted in public safety and equity challenges in these states, especially for rural areas.

Our local telephone and Internet provider is a small cooperative, which provides services to about 7,000 rural and remote customers in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. I’d had no prior experience with rural co-ops (or any rural business models, for that matter), and over time, I have found myself both loving and hating the quirks of the service provided.

The first experience of getting a trench dug and line laid was great. It was ridiculously cheap and very easy to achieve. That was the first step. Other tasks like getting my company’s toll free 800 number moved from our old location in L.A. to our new home or getting call forwarding to work proved to be much more difficult. In many cases, I wondered if I was the only person trying to run a business from here.

The quality of our Internet service is….well, uneven. I hesitate to complain, because I feel lucky to have DSL, which is much better than dial-up or satellite, however, it is NOT “blazing fast” or what is classified as “high speed broadband,” regardless of how it is advertised.

The FCC’s recently updated definition of  “broadband” as 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and up to 3 Mbps for uploads. They also say that 55 million Americans, including over half of rural people, lack access to this. I am one of those people.