Rosalia Mayor Nan Konishi sells hand-crafted furniture, when she’s not busy governing the town of about 550 residents in Whitman County, Washington near the border with Idaho. Konishi would like to sell items on her store’s website as well. But the town’s slow internet has been a deterrent. Rosalia is starting to plan for better broadband access.
“In today’s market if you’re not online, if you don’t have the online capabilities for promoting your business, your chances for success are really small,” Konishi said.
The city is not alone in Washington. The state is one of the more wired nationally. Yet as of mid-2015 still nearly half a million residents lacked access to what is now defined as a broadband-speed Internet connection. That’s according to the Broadband Now project developed with U.S. government data.
Thirty-nine percent of Americans living in rural areas lack broadband internet. That’s now defined as 25 megabits per second (Mbps) downloading and three Mbps uploading, according to the FCC. The 2016 report on broadband access said 20 percent of rural Americans didn’t even meet the earlier 4Mbps/1Mbps threshold. Meanwhile, only four percent of Americans in urban areas lack broadband.
The FCC changed the definition of broadband in early 2015. The required download speed went from 4 Mbps to at least 25 Mbps. Netflix recommends at least 5 Mbps to stream high-definition video, and 25 Mbps for Ultra HD. Internet Service Providers, including CenturyLink, criticized the FCC for creating a “moving target.” The FCC said it was necessary to account for modern internet usage. That often includes HD video streaming and multiple devices in the same household.
“In 2015, taking turns to share the Internet bandwidth is as absurd as taking turns to use the electricity,” wrote FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in a press release.
A Rural-Urban ‘Information Divide’ Remains
Suffice it to say that “fast enough” Internet is still not widespread enough in rural parts of Washington and the U.S. “The bottom line is the digital divide, information divide is still really alive and kicking,” said Kristie Kirkpatrick, Whitman County Library director.
Grants from the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act put millions of dollars toward supplying broadband to rural parts of Washington state, particularly to libraries, schools and hospitals.
All but one of the Whitman County libraries have high-speed internet now. But going the last mile to take it to individual residences and businesses has proven challenging and costly, Kirkpatrick said.
“People normally want to serve the donut hole where there’s lot of customers, they don’t want to serve the donut,” said Betty Buckley, executive director of the Washington Independent Telecommunications Association.
Infrastructure Investment Incentives Trickier
Buckley said it would cost $45,000 per mile to run fiber along the telephone poles to her ranch near the Colville Indian Reservation. She has few neighbors to split the cost with. Rural consumers use high-speed Internet at similar rates with their urban counterparts, when it’s available. But less-dense population areas means there’s not as much of a financial incentive for companies to invest in the infrastructure.
Buckley said she drives 15 miles into Republic to find a good internet connection and work. She has satellite Internet. But it’s limited to the equivalent of downloading three movies a month, and not fast enough to do that.
Kirkpatrick said one library patron was a writer whose publisher was in California. The author would work at home, then come to the library and use the faster internet to upload his manuscripts.
Businesses that require a rural setting should not face a baked-in information infrastructure disadvantage, according to Buckley. “[People tell me] ‘Well, you chose to live out there.’ Actually I would choose to live closer to Thai takeout, but it’s hard to find farm land very close to Wild Ginger,” she said.
A 2011 study by University of Illinois researchers found that farmers increased sales when they could advertise online rather than just to local customers. The report also concluded that bringing broadband to areas without it increased the employment rate by 1.8 percent, with a greater effect on rural communities.
But libraries in remote locations may only be open a few hours a week. And while 68 percent of Americans have smartphones, according to a 2015 Pew survey, reception can be unreliable in rural areas, and many of them find it difficult to read job postings, create cover letters and fill out applications on the small screens.
Forty-three percent of Americans without broadband say it’s a major disadvantage when trying to find out about jobs or gain career skills. According to a White House report, job seekers find work 25 percent faster using online resources.
Many agencies have put money towards expanding broadband access. The USDA’s Rural Development branch has funded $143.5 million of broadband projects in Washington in the past seven years. Hood Canal Communications expanded the fiber optic network in Mason County, improving high-speed internet access for about 3,000 homes and businesses. The company received a $2.7 million federal grant in 2010 for the project. And it contributed $900,000 of its own funding.
Providers And Connect America Team Up In Washington
CenturyLink and Frontier, with help from the FCC’s Connect America Fund, are planning to expand broadband service throughout Washington state over the next several years. CenturyLink is receiving $24.4 million to extend service to 58,961 homes and businesses. Frontier plans to expand broadband access to 19,713 new customers and is receiving $8.7 million from the fund.
Last week, the FCC began circulating a proposal to give low-income households a subsidy towards broadband access. The Lifeline program has been used for decades to help low-income households have phone service. The proposed change would expand the program, giving families $9.25 per month toward high-speed internet.
Legislators See Ways To Help
The state legislature introduced multiple bills this year to encourage broadband expansion. One that would have authorized a business and occupation tax credit for investors providing retail broadband service in underserved areas.
Another would have appropriated funds for tribes to plan broadband infrastructure on reservation land. The digital divide is even more stark there. Sixty-eight percent of Americans living on rural tribal land lack high-speed internet, according to the FCC.
But neither bill made it out of committee.
Buckley said people tend to forget “the symbiotic relationship between urban and rural” areas.
“Do people from urban areas care enough about getting products from rural areas to pay increased taxes or increased fees to ensure people in rural areas have access to the internet?” she said. “Try going a day without a product from a rural area, it just doesn’t work.”
An FCC report said rural small businesses can be at a competitive disadvantage due to the lack of availability of mass-market broadband service in their regions, relative to urban areas.
Konishi said if Rosalia wants to appeal to prospective call centers and other types of businesses that consider locating there, the town needs to have high-speed internet.
“That’s the wave of the future and if we’re not prepared to kind of get a hold of that line and tug on it, we’re going to miss the boat altogether,” she said.
Washington State University’s Murrow News Service did this video on economic challenges in Rosalia.