Community gathering spots like libraries, schools, and clinics are key for delivering affordable access to high-speed Internet for rural residents and other Americans. But these institutions won’t have the speed we need without changes in public policy.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To make sure more Americans have access to high-speed Internet and the services it provides, we need to widen the pipeline reaching community anchor institutions –libraries, schools, health-care clinics, public housing, and similar places that serve as a point of access for a variety of community endeavors.
That’s the conclusion of a new “broadband action plan” released July 13 by the Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition. The policy platform looks at 10 areas, including rural anchor institutions, which face special challenges that reduce access and raise the cost of deployment, according to author Tom Koutsky. Koutsky’s report is excerpted below. The full report, including a full set of policy recommendations, is available on the coalition’s website.
In thinly-populated rural and tribal areas, community anchor institutions (CAIs) can be vitally important to connecting residents to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, because of economic factors, anchor institutions in rural and tribal areas have an especially difficult time obtaining high-capacity broadband connections at affordable rates.
When implementing programs designed to increase access to broadband service in rural areas, federal, state, and local efforts should give high priority to the broadband needs of rural community anchor institutions.
Connecting Rural CAIs with High-Quality Broadband Is Important But Challenging Broadband demands at community institutions are rising quickly. The FCC estimated in 2014 that school demand for broadband data would increase 100-500 percent from 2014 to 2016. Moreover, anchor institutions have broadband needs that are very different from residential customers. For example, a library providing Internet access to dozens of desktop and laptop computers and tablets requires substantially more bandwidth than a home. …
Broadband and Rural Education Rural schools are four times less likely to have a fiber optic connection than urban schools. The Consortium for School Networking’s most recent survey of school broadband infrastructure found that, compared to urban schools, rural schools were more likely to have slower Internet connections, were less likely to receive competitive (two or more) bids for service, and were more likely to report that monthly and upfront costs were the biggest challenges to obtaining greater bandwidth.
Broadband and Rural Libraries Nearly half of all public libraries (46.8 percent) are in rural areas and many encounter high costs and lack of availability when trying to obtain broadband connectivity. … A speed test study conducted by the University of Maryland Information Policy and Access Center for the American Library Association (ALA) showed that the median download speed for rural public libraries was 9 Mbps, while the median download speeds for urban and suburban areas were 30.5 Mbps and 18.8 Mbps respectively. Wi-Fi connection speed and upload speeds were also much slower in rural locations.
Broadband and Rural Health Telemedicine could make providing health care in rural areas more economical by reducing travel time and allowing rural health institutions to see more patients at reduced costs. Unfortunately, many rural health care providers have an especially difficult time obtaining high-capacity broadband. For example, the Manila Clinic is the only health care facility in Daggett County, Utah, which has a population of 1,127. Manila Clinic’s service level does not meet the health care provider target of 10 Mbps recommended by the National Broadband Plan. When the clinic requested bids to connect to the Utah Telehealth Network, not a single provider responded, even with financial support from the FCC Rural Health Care (RHC) Program.
Broadband and Tribal Communities Tribal communities face especially difficult challenges when it comes to obtaining broadband services. According to one report, at least 40 percent of tribal libraries in the study sample did not have a broadband Internet connection. The National Broadband Plan recommended the FCC increase its commitment to consultation with tribal leaders and the FCC created an Office of Native Affairs and Policy, tasked to promote deployment and adoption of broadband. In addition, in rural areas where the FCC is subsidizing broadband construction through the Connect America Fund, the FCC requires subsidy recipients to engage with tribal governments on tribal broadband needs, culturally-sensitive marketing, and network construction.
More can be done, however. The National Broadband Plan recommended creation of a “Tribal Broadband Fund” to support sustainable broadband deployment and adoption on tribal lands. In 2016, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that recommended the FCC develop performance goals and measures for improving broadband availability to tribal schools and libraries on tribal lands. In addition, the GAO recommended the FCC collect and release E-rate data that would allow it to measure the impact of E-rate on tribal schools and libraries. While the GAO report says that the FCC agreed with these recommendations, it is not clear whether the FCC has taken these two steps to date. More recently, the Broadband Opportunity Council recommended that the Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Education launch an interagency initiative to “increase broadband connectivity and educational support at schools throughout Indian Country” by the fourth quarter of 2016.
Policy Approaches to Narrowing the Rural Broadband Gap for Anchor Institutions In the absence of a private business model for broadband deployment, public policies need to respond to the challenge of connecting anchor institutions in rural areas. Here are some examples of policies to promote rural broadband deployment to, and use by, anchor institutions in rural areas:
The FCC has been trying to address the growing broadband needs of rural health clinics for greater broadband access through its RHC program, but annual RHC funding is small (only $400 million per year, compared to about $4 billion per year for the E-rate program). The FCC created a new Healthcare Connect Fund (HCF) program in 2012 to supplement the traditional telecommunications program. The HCF was intended to drive fiber deployment to rural health clinics, but the HCF rules require applicants to provide 35 percent of the funding on their own, and the program’s restrictive rules on eligible health care providers and expenses have made it difficult for applicants. Disbursements from the RHC program have been consistently much lower than the $400 million allocated to the program each year.
Some states have utilized joint purchasing and consortia arrangements to lower the costs of broadband connectivity. The University of Maine System structured a request for proposals in 2014-15 for connections to K-12 schools, libraries, state and local government offices, and research institutions in the state, setting a minimum target of 100 Mbps per location. As a result, the average bandwidth in Maine schools increased from 187 Mbps to 515 Mbps with near-ubiquitous fiber access—all with no increase in overall cost.
The E-rate program provides significant financial support for schools and libraries and additional annual funding was added to the program beginning in 2015. The program includes additional supplemental funding of 5-10 percent for some rural schools and libraries, but, oddly enough, there is no additional rural discount in the two largest and highest poverty categories. The rural discount could be increased and expanded to include more schools and libraries, thereby reducing rural applicants’ match and incentivizing greater broadband investment in rural communities.…
To address the concern that there is too little competition to constrain prices in rural areas, the FCC recently required recipients of Connect America Fund (CAF) support to bid on E-rate requests for service. But the recipient of CAF support may still be the only provider in the area, so it is not clear whether this obligation will truly succeed in increasing broadband options for rural schools and libraries. This requirement may also cause challenges in areas where there is a consortium, state network or research and education network who is partnering with a CAF recipient, as it is not clear whether the recipient must independently submit its own bid for services in addition to its participation with the consortium. Some other ways to promote greater competition in rural areas are to promote policies such as open interconnection and lowering special access prices among rural providers.
The US Department of Agriculture awarded over $3.2 billion for 320 projects under the Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP), primarily for “last mile” projects to provide broadband service directly to end users in rural areas. While the program allowed funds to connect anchor institutions, most of the BIP grants and loans focused on connecting residential consumers. GAO issued a report in June 2014 that criticized the BIP program for failing to monitor and report on the impact of the program on broadband availability and use. The statutory language creating the Rural Utility Service gives a preference to award funding to existing RUS borrowers, which are often incumbent telephone companies. This practice has made it difficult for new entrants to compete for this funding. The Broadband Opportunity Council recommended that the RUS change its regulations by the fourth quarter of 2016 to open funding opportunities to alternative providers.
Some states are designing rural broadband build-out programs to address the needs of anchor institutions. Unfortunately, many of these programs focus only on levels of service appropriate for residences and small businesses, not the high-capacity services needed by CAIs. Minnesota, however, has instituted a Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program, a project that initially provided over $10 million to fund broadband construction in unserved and underserved regions throughout the state. The program specifically included service to community anchors as a key criterion for awarding broadband infrastructure grants.The program will be expanded to $35 million for fiscal year 2017.
Congress has embraced network sharing for FirstNet, a newly-created, quasi-governmental agency that is charged with building and operating a national public safety wireless broadband network for first responders. Created by Congress in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, FirstNet is required to develop network construction sharing agreements with commercial mobile providers as an important means of lowering the overall cost of building the network.
Rural broadband policy does not always adequately address the needs of anchor institutions. For example, the FCC’s Connect America Fund invests $4 billion per year into supporting networks in rural, high-cost parts of the country, but the FCC has set no specific benchmark or service standard for service to community anchors in those rural areas. Instead, the FCC only requires Connect America Fund subsidy recipients to consult with community anchor institutions when making network upgrade plans. These consultation and bidding requirements are supposed to happen on a case-by-case basis, but there is little oversight to ensure this FCC requirement is being enforced. Increased oversight would create greater incentives for the recipients of funding to comply with the obligation to consult with anchor institutions regarding their broadband needs.