Urban or Rural? Redefining “rural” may help get broadband to more communities

By Jim Hayes | Apr 14, 2023
EC2304_FiberOptics_AdobeStock_545899728 [Converted]
The U.S. government is focused on getting broadband service to all Americans and is prioritizing fiber to the home (FTTH) as the preferred service.




The U.S. government is focused on getting broadband service to all Americans and is prioritizing fiber to the home (FTTH) as the preferred service. The government is specifically trying to encourage broadband development in rural America, but the scope of the problem may have just changed because of a variation in how “urban” and “rural” areas are defined.

Census Bureau classification

More than 1,000 cities, towns and villages lost their status as urban areas when the U.S. Census Bureau released a list of urban or rural places based on a new classification on Feb. 9, 2023. To be classified as urban, the population threshold is now 2,000 housing units or a population of at least 5,000. Rural areas are classified as areas not fitting the definition of urban.

There were 2,646 urban areas in the mainland United States, Puerto Rico and U.S. islands on the list, among them three dozen new urban areas that were rural a decade ago. Around 4.2 million residents of 1,140 small cities, hamlets, towns and villages that lost their urban designation were bumped into the rural category, which could be good for them. The change matters, because rural and urban areas often qualify for different types of federal funding for transportation, housing, healthcare, education, agriculture and broadband. 

The federal government doesn’t have a standard definition of urban or rural, so the Census Bureau’s definition is often used and there is often a misunderstanding about “rural.” If you say rural to the average American, they think of farms. But the 2.2 million farms in the United States only represent a population of about 7 million people, while the Census Bureau says about 60 million people live in rural America. The rest live in small towns.

The connection challenge

When you talk about FTTH in rural America, the incumbents loudly protest that there is no way that running fiber to farms is economically feasible. But connecting homes with fiber in those small towns is often less costly than connecting subscribers in urban areas where underground construction is expensive. In rural areas, most cables are aerial, which is the least expensive way to install fiber, and the FTTH gigabit passive optical network equipment available is sized for the smaller numbers of subscribers in small towns.

Small-town telcos or electrical cooperatives are often the ones connecting rural areas with broadband, instead of it being done by the typical large telco or CATV companies. They understand rural networks and construction and are dedicated to serving customers. They also are painfully aware of the deficiencies of rural broadband.

A few years ago, the president of a major telco told Wall Street he saw no way that building rural broadband networks could be economically viable. That same company is now building a broadband network in a rural area, as are other large incumbent broadband providers. What changed?

A decade ago, we all thought that Google Fiber would cause the incumbents to continue their FTTH broadband buildouts, but it turned out they were still cherry-picking the easiest urban or suburban areas to expand into. In the meantime, states such as California, Kentucky, Maine and many more have been building their own middle­-mile networks to connect their counties and cities, especially their small towns.

Once the middle-mile network is ready, it becomes the small towns’ and rural counties’ responsibility to complete the job. Local citizens often take matters into their own hands, using existing co-op infrastructure to install their own fiber optic broadband networks. The Fiber Optic Association (FOA) has helped plan more than 100 such systems; what we call do-it-yourself FTTH.

Billions of government dollars are now available for the purpose of building out broadband in rural areas. To take advantage of these funds, the states must create their own broadband agency, help map the underserved or unserved areas and find service providers willing to provide matching funds.

At FOA, we’ve had so many video calls with these agencies that our eyes are bloodshot! But we’re seeing local agencies become capable of evaluating technology and service providers while preparing themselves to manage the build-out of these networks when the real money starts flowing. / Dmitry Kovalchuk

About The Author

HAYES is a VDV writer and educator and the president of the Fiber Optic Association. Find him at

featured Video


Why Vive Lighting Controls - The Benefits of Wireless

Vive by Lutron is a simple, scalable, wireless lighting control solution designed to meet today’s energy codes and budgets in both new and existing commercial buildings. Vive wireless systems install up to 70% faster than wired solutions, saving time, money, and labor costs.


Related Articles