Stakeholders tell Congress it could cost $150B to get broadband to rural US
During a congressional hearing on rural broadband before the House Agriculture Committee, industry stakeholders were asked by the committee chair, Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) exactly how much it's going to cost to get broadband infrastructure where it's needed across the US. But panelists testified that the number is hard to pin down without accurate mapping data.
"There are estimates that suggest that the cost to actually reach those who are unserved is anywhere from $60 to $80 billion ... However, it's hard to rely on such estimates because we haven't first done the hard and necessary work to accurately map where those gaps exist. So the first order of business is actually mapping the gap," said Vickie Robinson, general manager for Microsoft's Airband Initiative, which partners with ISPs, energy providers, nonprofits and entrepreneurs to expand broadband access in rural areas.
Exceeding Robinson's estimate and going beyond Joe Biden's proposed $100 billion for broadband, Johnny Park, CEO of Wabash Heartland Innovation Network (WHIN), suggested that number is closer to $150 billion, but he said that this also depends on which technologies will ultimately be used, with fiber a more expensive undertaking.
While both Robinson and Park were advocating for tech-neutral solutions, including fixed wireless and aerostats, Jennifer Prather, VP and general manager of Totelcom Communications, an ISP serving De Leon, Texas, raised concerns about the government funding technologies other than fiber for use in rural areas where they have yet to be proven.
"Should it not work out that well, should it not be as reliable as a fiber optic technology we don't want to leave those customers behind even longer than they've already been left behind," she said. "When you put a limited amount of resources towards rural America, you want to use something that will last for decades."
Prather, who was also at the hearing on behalf of NTCA, The Rural Broadband Association, said just last week that a fixed wireless tower in her company's service area was struck by lightning, causing an outage; the storm was not an issue for their fiber network. "Out here, we get a lot of hailstorms, power, wind, things like that, we want to look at infrastructure that can handle those issues as well," she said.
The uncertainty around what counts as a "future-proof" technology also led to some hand-wringing from stakeholders and legislators on the committee about the FCC's RDOF auction potentially doling out funds to entities that, they fear, won't be able to deliver.
"It is a mistake to group all technologies that can reach a certain speed threshold as equal. Certain technologies like fiber to the home systems are more robust time tested and future proof than others and public funds should be allocated accordingly," said Tim Johnson, CEO of OEConnect and Ostego Electric Cooperative, which began providing broadband service in 2017 with a fiber network that now passes over 5,000 locations.
In opening testimony, Johnson said that OEC was awarded $7.18 million through RDOF but that the cooperative has been "inundated" with service requests since the start of the pandemic. He also stressed that more effort should be made by the government in general to support electric cooperatives that are uniquely served to deliver broadband to their communities but cannot (and will not) do so without public funding. And he urged that the government accelerate the start of RDOF Phase II, or use that funding for other programs that can be made available sooner.
"FCC RDOF auctions are very useful, they take time to put together, but if they can be accelerated, that's what we need. That is the simplest funding and the fastest funding that can be made available out there to get the job done," said Johnson.
— Nicole Ferraro, contributing editor and host of "The Divide" and "What's the Story?" Light Reading
Here's where you can find episode links for 'The Divide,' Light Reading's podcast series featuring conversations with broadband providers and policymakers working to close the digital divide.
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