Wednesday, May 25, 2016

America doesn’t have a “rural broadband” problem. It suffers from incomplete telecom infrastructure.

America’s telecommunications infrastructure deficiencies are often framed as a “rural broadband” issue and frequently compared to the lack of electric service in rural areas of the nation early in the 20th century. Both the description of the problem and the analogy are wrong.

They’re incorrect for a couple of reasons. First, landline Internet service more advanced than 1990s dialup can often be found in nominally “rural” areas. But typically some premises have access while others a mile or two down the road, or over the hill or around the bend do not. Even premises Internet service providers believe are connected are not, resulting in unpleasant surprises for new residents moving in under the impression service was available. That does not make for a “rural broadband” problem. The problem is partial, incomplete and highly granular landline telecom infrastructure.

By comparison, the lack of electrical distribution infrastructure in rural counties during the first few decades of the previous century was truly a rural problem. It wasn’t granular, with some communities and neighborhoods having power and others left in the dark. Entire rural regions had no electrical service, which was concentrated in cities.

The “rural broadband” label has an unfortunate aspect. It allows legacy incumbent providers and public policymakers to segment off and mischaracterize the problem as one affecting only thinly populated, remote regions of the nation and thus not requiring urgent action.

It does. The United States is a generation behind where it should be when it comes to modernizing its legacy metal cable telephone and cable TV infrastructures with fiber optic cable connecting every American home, business and public institution. If we continue to shrug our shoulders and insist on believing it’s a “rural broadband” problem, the United States risks slipping into third world nation status when it comes to its telecom infrastructure.

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