In the early 1930s, only about 10% of rural citizens had electricity.
About 90% of urban citizens already had it, according to the Roosevelt Institute. Private companies showed little interest in building expensive infrastructure in rural areas, where there were fewer people.
In 1936, the government created the Rural Electrification Act. Farmer-based cooperatives applied for low-interest loans to construct electricity infrastructure through the act.
By 1939, 417 cooperatives helped bring electricity to 25% of rural households. By 1945, nine out of 10 farms had electricity.
“Electric membership cooperatives still exist,” said Audra Mulkern, of the Female Farmer Project and Refresh Food and Tech Working Group. “They’re the ones that worked to light America.”
Mulkern has been researching rural broadband with Refresh Food and Tech, which studies issues in food, technology and agriculture. As part of this, she has researched electric cooperatives.
The problem of rural electricity has often been compared to the problem of rural broadband today.
Rural areas have lagged behind urban and suburban areas in broadband access. Some, like Mulkern, believe cooperatives are the key.
Many, however, agree that public and private work are both essential to solving the problem.
The question of rural broadband, experts say, is an economic one. Building infrastructure costs money. Providing service to lower-population areas is another financial challenge.
Private entities are still working to bring access to rural areas, often using federal funds from programs like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program and the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund.
Public and private entities working together is critical, Shelley McKinley, Microsoft’s vice president of technology and corporate responsibility, told Farm and Dairy.
“That public money is incredibly important,” she said. “But we need sustainable business models to keep areas covered.”
Another part of the issue is the mapping problem. FCC data shows that almost 90% of rural America has access to broadband, but other experts say that number is too high.
“If you don’t know who doesn’t have coverage, you can’t direct money appropriately,” McKinley said.
The Broadband DATA Act, federal legislation that requires the FCC to adjust how it collects, verifies and reports broadband data, was signed into law March 23. Some private entities are also working on mapping. Progress has been made, McKinley said, but there is still more to do.
Microsoft’s Airband Initiative is one private-sector effort to expand broadband access.
Through the initiative, launched in 2017, Microsoft plans to help Internet service providers bring access to 3 million unserved citizens across the country by 2022. So far, McKinley says “we are on track.”
The project has brought access to about 630,000 people so far, but with much of legwork on developing partnerships with ISPs and planning networks done, McKinley said, Microsoft expects to reach its goal.
In Ohio, Microsoft is working with Agile Networks, in Canton, and WATCH Communications, in Lima. WATCH Communications is also receiving $53.4 million in FCC funding through the Connect America Fund over 10 years to deploy broadband service in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.
Part of WATCH’s plan is to bring access to over 288,000 currently unserved people in rural Ohio. WATCH says its initial rollout will impact 22 Ohio counties and 215,000 households. Construction has started, said Greg Jarman, chief development officer.
Microsoft, McKinley explained, is not an internet service provider, but works with companies to help them get better prices on equipment, training on different technology and access to resources. It also advocates nationally for better regulations for companies to work with TV white space to expand their networks.
While some believe fiber is the best type of technology to expand access, McKinley believes in a mix of technologies.
“Laying fiber everywhere is not affordable,” she said.
A study Microsoft did with the Boston Consulting Group suggested that a combination of technologies, including TV white space, could cover the country faster and cheaper.
TV white space allows internet to be provided over the television spectrum, McKinley said. This could be useful for rural areas. TV white space, however, is heavily regulated.
The FCC proposed updates to white space rules that would make it more efficient for broadband in rural areas Feb. 28, in response to a Microsoft petition. McKinley said being able to broadcast at a higher power would make TV white space more usable. Microsoft is continuing to advocate for updated regulations.
“Fundamentally, we really don’t care if it’s TV white space or something else,” McKinley said. “It’s really about covering people.”
Jarman said because different technologies work better in different areas, WATCH works with the counties it expands in to determine what is needed. In some areas, fiber is viable. For most rural areas, wireless works better. The company expects to have construction completed for its initial roll-out in about four years.
The COVID-19 crisis, however, cast a spotlight on the digital divide, highlighting an immediate need.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act included several provisions for broadband, including an additional $100 million for ReConnect program grants.
One of Microsoft’s goals in this crisis, McKinley said, is to help its partners access some of the stimulus funding available for broadband.
Jarman said WATCH has also added more hotspots for people who don’t have broadband at home. Microsoft assisted with that effort.
“Working with the counties has created an environment for us to reach into those communities,” Jarman said.
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