Rural broadband got a shoutout last night as delegates from across the US virtually gathered to nominate Joe Biden as the official Democratic Party presidential nominee.
With a backdrop of cattle, recent college graduate Rachel Provost spoke of returning to her parents' house in Montana when her campus closed due to COVID-19, and her struggle to access a reliable connection for remote learning.
"When COVID shut down my college, I came home to my parents' ranch to finish senior year online. But some days I can't even get a video to load or an email attachment to send. Without reliable internet, there's no remote learning, no virtual doctors' appointments, and just try starting a small business," said Provost. "Rural broadband could be a game changer for communities like mine, and Joe Biden has a plan to make it happen."
While the digital divide exists all across the US, Montana is an especially perfect location to make the case for connectivity: According to BroadbandNow, Montana ranks "nearly dead last" in terms of Internet access in the 50 states.
"The low amount of broadband infrastructure can likely be attributed to the fact that Montana has a great deal of rural and wilderness areas as well as a relatively low population despite its large geographic size," states BroadbandNow. "To put this in perspective, Montana has roughly the same population as Rhode Island. Montana's average statewide download speed is 81.4 Mbps, but coverage remains spotty throughout the state."
Getting down to the nitty gritty, Montana has 120 Internet providers, with Charter Spectrum and CenturyLink as the main competitors; and at least 205,000 residents only have access to one provider.
BroadbandNow stats further show nearly 78% of Montanans have wired broadband with download speeds of 25 Mbit/s; while 203,000 lack access to wired access of comparable speed, and 36,000 can't get a wired connection at all. In terms of affordability, only 0.7% – or fewer than 7,500 residents – have access to a wired connection for less than $60 per month.
Of those with access to wired connections in the state, less than 15% can get fiber-based Internet, with the vast majority (91.9%) accessing the web through a DHL service. Further, 5.3% of the state's residents have access to 1-gigabit broadband, and 70.7% can reach speeds of 100 Mbit/s or better.
While several states are spending their CARES Act cash to invest in broadband programs, Montana does not appear to be one of them, despite getting $1.25 billion in federal relief funds.
Imploring the governor to act otherwise, in an editorial in June, Montana State University professor Ann Ewbank wrote: "The pandemic has caused many of us to ask ourselves whether the way we live and work needs to change. Montanans need broadband now and this broadband access must be sustained. The federal CARES Act provides Gov. [Steve] Bullock with funds to designate for projects to maintain schools, libraries, and health care. The time to examine the adequacy of Montana's broadband infrastructure is now, and some of the funding could jumpstart a long-term effort to establish an education and telehealth broadband network."
Whether or not more broadband funding, or any funding for states, comes in the form of the HEROES Act (passed by the House but stalled in the Senate) remains to be seen.
Broadband on the ballot
As referenced by Rachel Provost during the roll call vote, the proposed "Biden Plan for Rural America" would commit $20 billion for rural broadband infrastructure.
According to Joe Biden's campaign website: "Investing $20 billion in rural broadband infrastructure has the potential to create more than a quarter million new jobs. The Biden Plan will triple Community Connect broadband grants and partner with municipal utilities to bring cutting-edge broadband connections to communities across rural America."
In January 2020, the Trump administration committed $86 million for rural broadband builds in Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. There are no plans for broadband or otherwise listed on the president's re-election campaign website.
Charter has sparked RDOF work in all 24 states where it won bids. The cable op booked about $19 million in RDOF revenues in Q1, and expects to have about $9 million per month come in over the next ten years.
Launch of 2-Gig and 5-Gig FTTP tiers in 70-plus markets puts more pressure on cable ops to enhance their existing DOCSIS 3.1 network or accelerate their upgrade activity centered on the new DOCSIS 4.0 specs.