The Big Picture, Part I
Sept. 23, 2019
At the risk of stating the obvious, the United States is losing the race to broadband connectivity. If you have read my blog before, you know that I’m competitive – not just for myself, but also for my country (and, clearly, for my kids, chosen sports teams, etc.). Therefore, it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth that we’re losing this broadband connectivity race. When I think about the capacity and resources we have to win, it makes me want to act like my husband does when his beloved Kentucky Wildcats are about to lose in the Final Four (use your imagination).
While there are endless debates about broadband mapping and which county or state has what level of penetration, we all know there are areas missing out on the level of connectivity commonplace in most population centers. Some of these are rural areas, some small towns, some exurbs, and some even within urban areas. We know this because we have friends or family who live in these locations. Unfortunately, people in these areas basically have two options: Stay put and accept the lack of connectivity that is likely impacting job availability, educational opportunities, and the local economy; Or move. Neither of these options are great, and for some, they may not even have a choice, as moving and uprooting lives is a costly and emotional endeavor. This also begs the question: why are we, as a country, forcing them to make this choice, when it is quite clear that broadband is, arguably, an essential service?
If we want to win global races, we want our entire team ready to play, right? But some of our team members – those in the connectivity-deficient locations, including in the breadbasket of our country – are being benched against their will. Why? Because it is expensive to build infrastructure, and broadband connectivity still requires it, whether it is enabled wirelessly or via wireline. Wireline infrastructure provides, at minimum, a backbone to wireless infrastructure, but it can also be deployed all the way to the premises. Wires being strung or put in the ground now are almost exclusively made of fiber-optic cable (fiber). Fiber is reliable and can be configured to enable amazing amounts of bandwidth, but it can be expensive. Wireless infrastructure requires towers to relay signals, and for even greater amounts of connectivity, small cellular devices deployed in close proximity.
If you were a company providing broadband internet connectivity, and you knew that you had the potential for 100 customers per mile or 10 customers, like in a rural area, which would you prioritize first? Of course, you would deploy to the denser populations. And that is what has happened, in general, over the last 20 years in the U.S. But other countries, including democratic ones, have prioritized getting this connectivity deployed more ubiquitously. They have recognized it as an essential service and created policies that flow from there.
Guess what—we’ve done this before in our country for another essential service—electricity. A hundred years ago, while most people in cities were enjoying the lights, running water, and plentiful jobs enabled by what Time Magazine deemed to be the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century, the farmers and ranchers in rural America were stuck in the 19th century. What pushed things forward then was a policy decision coupled with financial backing – defining electricity as an essential service and creating rural electric cooperatives that could access federal loans and grants to defray the low-population density infrastructure build costs required to get electricity to customers. Over time, those customers have paid back the investment, but it took time – time that modern communications providers don’t ever seem to have.
The key difference between electricity then and broadband now is that infrastructure already exists in these rural areas – electric infrastructure that is. The same infrastructure that brings electricity all across the country includes communications systems needed to underpin electric operations. This infrastructure also holds a lot of the communications infrastructure deployed by communications providers themselves, even if for older-school voice and video, and dial-up internet. So, we have a solution.
Moreover, many electricity providers – publicly owned, cooperatively owned and investor-owned – have been asked by their customers, regulators, state lawmakers, or all three to provide broadband connectivity. The ways in which they have done so varies greatly – some are retail providers, some are providing the “middle mile” infrastructure service to enable others to provide the end-use service, etc., etc.
To me, this makes a ton of sense, and might eventually get our whole “team” playing in the global competition, which is connected by broadband and powered by electricity. But, alas, some electric utilities are prohibited outright from providing anything outside of electric service – even leasing the extra bandwidth from their own communications infrastructure. At this point in our broadband evolution, it is shortsighted to not use all the infrastructure we have at our disposal. Instead, we are being told that 5G (the fifth generation of wireless technology) will solve our broadband connectivity gap. But guess what? 5G still requires infrastructure – thousands of small cells attached to electric infrastructure (part II of this blog will talk about those impacts) – and it still requires a certain density of customers that doesn’t exist in rural areas, small towns, some exurbs, etc.
The bottom line is that we can enter any race we want to, but to win, all the members of our team must have the proper equipment and training. Electric utilities, whether on their own or in partnership, are key players on this team. Until we meet again for part II…