Keeping Tabs on the Digital Divide

The LinkAge

FYI: Rural Broadband Experiments

The FCC launched its rural broadband experiments to help identify effective methods to bring Internet access to hard-to-serve rural areas. This $100 million initiative provides pilot funding for organizations to demonstrate their ability to deliver broadband (in accordance with certain speed requirements) to rural communities. Of the total budget, $25 million is reserved for census blocks that are considered high cost or extremely costly to serve. The FCC will select winning bidders by scoring proposals against its selection criteria.

On average, 73.4 percent of households in the United States have an Internet subscription according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey. While this statistic is alarming enough, the divide is even more apparent when you analyze connectivity by geography. In urban areas, 74.9 percent of households have Internet subscriptions, which is just above the U.S. average. However in rural areas, only 66.9 percent of households have Internet subscriptions. In other words, one-third of all households in rural areas are without home Internet access.

Cost, digital literacy, and relevance are part of why rural residents aren’t online, but there’s also the added issue of infrastructure. According to a 2013 NTIA report on Internet availability, only 71 percent of individuals in rural areas had access to wireline Internet. This is compared to the 98 percent of urban residents who have the same access. Wireless Internet is more widely available, with 86 percent of rural residents having access to basic service. But this is only considering thresholds of 3 Mbps downstream. Only 15 percent of rural residents could get wireless download speeds of 10 Mbps or more, whereas 70 percent of urban residents had those speeds available to them.

Experiments have been used in many areas of product and service delivery, often to encourage innovation or explore what “works.” In this case, the FCC aims to promote creativity and openly consider a variety of approaches for reaching rural customers. The experiments also position the FCC to learn from the pilots’ results before committing higher levels of funding, thus lowering the chance of making a sizeable, untested investment that fails. Moreover, adopting a market approach to sourcing can help the FCC consider cost effectiveness of solutions, and determine the approximate cost to serve rural areas.

The experimental approach is not without drawbacks, however. The scalability of winning bidders may be a concern; a successful pilot in one census block may not be transferable nationwide. (Similarly, solutions that do benefit from economies of scale may not bid or win funding for an experiment, if they require such scale to show promise.) Rural communities also differ in terms of population density, terrain, and proximity to urban areas. These differences may limit nationwide application of winning solutions.

At EveryoneOn, our mission is to bring high-speed, low-cost Internet to all unconnected Americans. While our platform of offers is national, it’s also subject to the coverage constraints of our current ISP partners.

As our coverage map above shows, despite our strong platform of offers, many of them don’t extend into rural areas. Thus, we have a vested interest in the results of the FCC effort. If the experiments can identify cost-effective ways to serve rural populations, we may encourage our current partners to apply these methods, or bring on new partners that expand our footprint. The key element in the FCC’s approach will be learning. Assuming the FCC can extract the keys to success as the experiments conclude, that learning can be applied to the larger goal of connecting all rural communities.

You can follow the progress of the FCC Rural Broadband Experiments on the FCC’s website.


Vin Menon is the chief operating officer at EveryoneOn.