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Bringing broadband to all rural Americans could cost up to $150 billion

The price tag could vary, depending on the equipment that is used – fiber optic vs. wireless, for example – and the speed of connectivity.

President Biden proposed $100 billion in his infrastructure plan to make high-speed internet available throughout America, but industry officials said at a congressional hearing on Tuesday that it could cost up to $150 billion to fill the gaps in coverage in rural America, where service is slower and spottier than in cities.

The price tag could vary, depending on the equipment that is used – fiber optic vs. wireless, for example – and the speed of connectivity.

“It’s essential we act to finally close the digital divide that has kept so many of our rural communities from reaching their full potential,” said House Agriculture chairman David Scott in opening the hearing. The Georgia Democrat has said he may draft a rural broadband bill that could advance on its own or become part of infrastructure legislation.

“Our expectation is about $150 billion,” said Johnny Park, chief executive of Wabash Heartland Innovation Network, based in Indiana, when Scott asked for an estimate for rural broadband.

Microsoft executive Vickie Robinson suggested $60 billion to $80 billion, with the qualification that rural needs are not fully known. “That is the first order of business, to map the gap,” said Robinson, general manager of Microsoft’s Airband initiative. It relies on the unused broadcast frequencies between TV channels to deliver wireless broadband.

The four broadband executives agreed optical fiber was the gold standard for reliable, high-speed service while advising against one-size-fits-all standards. Park’s company is experimenting with the use of a tethered 80-foot-long balloon, known as an aerostat, as a link between scattered households and broadband providers. Other companies use a mix of fiber optic and fixed wireless.

“We believe strongly” that so-called 100/100 capacity, broadband able to download and upload 100 megabits per second, should be the goal, said Tim Johnson, chief executive of Ostego Electric Cooperative, in southeastern New York state.

The FCC’s minimum standard for broadband is 25/3, or 25 Mbps down and 3 Mps up, set in 2015. The USDA’s grant-and-loan ReConnect Program, created in 2018, facilitates deployment of broadband in areas with service below 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream.

“We don’t want to build to the minimum standards of today,” said Jennifer Prather, general manager of Totelcom Communications, of DeLeon, Texas. “We want to build for the future.”

Prather and Johnson said they were deluged during the pandemic with requests from newcomers for service and from established customers for more capacity. Totelcom saw a 200% increase in internet usage “while everyone began to work and learn from home,” said Prather. Johson said his cooperative was “inundated with people asking, praying, for service.”

Internet connections above 25 Mbps are “a good internet speed,” says BroadbandNow, a website that compiles information on broadband service and prices. “Internet speeds in the 100 to 200 Mbps range are ideal for most households since they can handle common uses like streaming and video chat for two to five users at once.”

Internet options are “pretty limited” in rural areas, said BroadbandNow. “Progress is being made…but for now, fixed wireless and DSL are likely to be best for most users. That said, satellite service is still the only technology that’ll work just about anywhere.”

Farms most commonly use DSL and satellite connections, which run at slower speeds than cable or fiber optic connections. The Pew Research Center says rural Americans are less likely than urban residents to own a smartphone or have broadband service at home.

To watch a video of the hearing, click here.

To read the written testimony of the witnesses, click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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