In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about the need to bridge the digital divide in America. The global COVID-19 pandemic not only accelerated the vital need to close this gap, but it also highlighted the disparity between those who have access to high-speed broadband and those who do not. Seemingly overnight, broadband access became even more essential to our daily lives: enabling remote working, at-home learning, telemedicine visits, and many other critical services. In fact, more than half of Americans said the internet has been essential for them personally during the pandemic.
Yet, across much of rural America, the broadband digital divide is still very real, which impacts the lives and livelihoods of residents in many small communities and Native American settlements that are underserved by traditional internet service providers. More than 22% of Americans in rural areas and 28% in tribal lands lack access to high-speed broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Delivery of internet services would be a real game-changer for these communities; transforming the way people live and work.
The good news is that many rural electric cooperatives, public power utilities, and tribal organizations are ideally positioned to help deliver these services. With secured rights-of-way, existing network infrastructure, and strong community demand in rural and indigenous communities, these organizations can leverage their resources to build a local broadband network. Often, the primary roadblock standing in their way is simply a matter of stakeholder buy-in.
To answer any hesitancy that utilities or tribal leaders may have about this investment, the best starting point is clear information about the community benefits and economic impacts.
Return on Investment
While many electric co-ops, public power utilities, and tribal groups may be aware of the potential benefits for their communities, the decision to invest in high-speed broadband requires consensus from multiple stakeholders. This buy-in process typically includes decisions made by board members, local and tribal government representatives, and key community leaders. Winning over these stakeholders might mean overcoming the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that comes with change.
The “go, no-go” decision typically comes down to a rigorous cost/benefit analysis so that stakeholders can understand why investment in broadband infrastructure makes sense. It is up to the utility to illustrate the power of the technology and the value of the investment in it, as well as demonstrating why not investing is a disservice to the local community.
There are many studies highlighting a strong correlation between broadband availability and economic growth. For example, financial consulting firm Deloitte found that boosting broadband access by 10% could result in an average increase of 269,000 new jobs and $37.2 billion in U.S. economic output per year. Moreover, a report conducted by the Purdue Center for Regional Development estimated that every dollar invested in broadband returns nearly four dollars to the economy — an impressive 400% return on investment.
Now is a pivotal time to consider investing in community broadband. The recent availability of the U.S. Treasury American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, NTIA Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) funding within the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), USDA ReConnect, NTIA Tribal Broadband Connectivity, and other programs have set the stage for an unprecedented boost to U.S. broadband deployment and adoption, with nearly $50 billion in funding available for shovel-ready projects.
Building the Case
Boosting broadband in rural and tribal communities can spark growth in daily life, including education, innovation, economic and workforce development, consumer savings, and farm income. There are five major areas where the effects are especially helpful:
Quality of life: A wide range of benefits enabled by broadband, such as telemedicine, distance learning, and improved access to content and social media, translate to better health and quality of life. Plus, the ability to work remotely has become critical. It’s estimated that 25-30% of employees will continue to telecommute after the pandemic. With access to affordable broadband, these workers have the option to choose where they want to live based on the quality of the community, not its proximity to their office.
Civic leadership: In cities of all sizes, local governments are using broadband to significantly improve how they respond to changing community needs, such as the use of high-speed video capabilities to host virtual town halls. Affordable community-wide access also encourages convenient online self-service, so that residents can renew their driver’s license, pay property taxes and utility bills, and get updates on municipal construction, all without leaving home. Moreover, a broadband infrastructure enables the use of mobile location intelligence technologies, allowing public safety officials to share critical information regarding potential emergencies, including dangerous weather events and viral hotspots. It also provides real-time data transmission that helps police track and respond to public safety threats.
Modernized services: A fiber-based infrastructure helps utilities create a smarter, more cyber secure grid that can scale in size, scope, and services as the community grows. One result is improved overall service reliability that reduces power disruptions and speeds outage restorations. Using remote technologies to monitor the smart grid, utilities are also able to reduce peak energy loads to save operational costs. Power and tribal utilities can also generate new revenue from additional fiber services to offset flat or declining electricity revenue.
Enhanced business: Access to super-fast fiber infrastructure is vital for business productivity and economic development. Not only does it help businesses of all sizes to take advantage of the Internet of Things (IoT), automation, workforce mobility, and improved research, but broadband also opens doors for local businesses to access global markets and boost profits by selling their goods and services around the world.
Long-term community growth: A digital infrastructure that is both well-utilized and evolving is a leading indicator of a vibrant and growing community. Connected schools and libraries, an educated workforce, virtual medical services, and more efficient use of resources make a community more attractive to new businesses and families, while enhancing life for existing residents and businesses.
This is just a small sample of benefits that creates a strong case for rural and tribal broadband investment. Each organization must pick and choose the benefits that deliver the most value to their communities. This process to build the case for broadband also helps the utilities or tribal groups clarify their vision, goals, and strategies to ensure that community-inspired projects deliver the right results.
A successful broadband initiative is founded on community consensus and support, aided by a strong business case that is both aspirational and convincing from a cost/benefit perspective. At Fujitsu, we have significant experience helping organizations make the strongest possible case for broadband infrastructure to get stakeholders to rally around a shared vision.
How can we help you bridge the digital divide in your local community?