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Rural Broadband: We must plan for the next 30 years

As the Biden administration gears up to invest billions in rural broadband access, industry insiders like the National Cable TV Association and AT&T have expressed concerns about the high cost of fiber optic technology. While they acknowledge that fiber is the most “future proof” technology currently available, they say it is too expensive for rural America. They point out that existing technologies like fixed wireless, DSL, and cable modems are capable of delivering 100 Mbps download speeds, so there is no need to bring fiber to everyone. Doing so would be “overbuilding.”

Such thinking misses the point of an infrastructure investment.

What is infrastructure? It’s roads and bridges. It’s water and sewer. It’s electricity. And now, it’s broadband. These technologies all have two things in common: they are essential, and they have to last. Anyone who has lived through a sewer upgrade or a major road project will tell you: once a generation is enough. Orange barrel season is bad as it is. Imagine if roads had to be rebuilt from scratch every five years. This is what could happen with broadband if we do not plan far enough ahead.

When Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web in 1990, a fast connection was just 0.01 Mbps. In 2000, it was 1 Mbps. During the following decade, Skype, the iPhone, and Netflix pushed the envelope to 10 Mbps. Now, 100 Mbps is the new normal thanks to remote work, online school, telehealth, and an ever-increasing appetite for ultra-high definition video.

With well-maintained copper cabling, something that does not exist in much of rural America, DSL and cable can deliver up to 100 Mbps, but they cannot go much beyond. Fixed wireless fares somewhat better, topping out at 1000 Mbps, but if current demand trends continue, even that speed will be too slow within a decade. Fiber optic is the only technology with the capacity and reliability to remain viable for the next 30 years.

Rural broadband investment is about the next generation, not just the next few years. We should be much more concerned about underbuilding than about overbuilding.

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