Long-awaited news of continued broadband deployment to rural communities came in May as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced authorization of nearly $200 million ($199,336,695, to be exact) to fund new broadband developments in 26 states and the Northern Mariana Islands intended to reach 230,000 new locations.
In total, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund plans to disburse up to $20.4 billion over 10 years to bring broadband to millions of rural homes and small businesses. This announcement marks the ninth round of funding since July 2021, totaling more than $5.2 billion to date. Deployment has reached more than 3 million locations in 47 states and the Northern Mariana Islands—but there are many more rural areas still to cover.
In a 2021 report, “The Digital Divide: What Is It, Where Is It, and Federal Assistance Programs,” the Congressional Research Service defined broadband as “high-speed internet access that is faster than traditional dial-up access, always on, and relies on high-speed transmission technologies.”
This could include fiber optic cable and wireless. Rural and tribal areas typically lag behind urban and suburban communities in deployment and speed, largely because of the costs involved in covering large geographic areas that serve few customers.
However, the importance of affordable, reliable broadband to rural communities spans economic, educational and social boundaries. A study conducted in Douglas County, Ore., by the Fiber Broadband Association is indicative of the impact it has across the nation. The study, released in April 2022 and conducted by Futuriom Research, revealed that fiber broadband service there resulted in:
- Creating new jobs
- Improving the quality of life, including improving hospital care through telehealth, patient portals and scheduling
- Generating $28 million in annual revenue and savings
- Enabling students to participate in online learning—particularly through the pandemic, but also for adult education
- Fighting forest fires by enabling cameras to locate and track fires, and for emergency-only use by firefighters
In addition, Todd Way, CEO of local ISP Douglas Fast Net, acknowledges broadband’s role in attracting new businesses.
The FCC is overseeing the current program to close “the digital divide,” as Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel describes it. Earlier this year, she created the Rural Broadband Accountability Plan to monitor compliance for universal high-cost programs such as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and the Connect America Fund Phase II Auction.
To ensure compliance and ensure the integrity of the program, Rosenworcel’s plan created new transparency and verification procedures that allow the public to track progress.
She also introduced stringent requirements for bidders. Under the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund program, Rosenworcel’s team conducts technical, financial and legal review of all winning bidders, who must be eligible telecommunications carriers. Bidders who haven’t secured state approval have been denied, saving $370 million. Letters sent to 197 applicants after discovering evidence of waste have also saved money.