Online Anywhere: Rural Broadband Boosted by Pandemic Funds and Work-from-Home Demand

Their 12.5-acre farm in Villanow, Georgia, is the perfect place for Joe Hader’s growing family, his home-based business and his penchant for the outdoors, but Hader wasn’t always sure it would work.

“I’m in video production and marketing, so I need the internet so much it’s ridiculous,” says Hader, who moved from Austin, Texas to Walker County, Georgia. , two years ago. “It was a major consideration, and when we first checked the house, I couldn’t even make phone calls from where I was.”

Hader devised a solution by working with AT&T, which has a cell tower on a nearby ridgeline, to get a high-speed mobile hotspot for his Zoom calls and video downloads. It worked, but now fiber optic internet is on the way thanks to a $6.2 million grant to Walker County from the Georgia Broadband Infrastructure Committee — plus more than $5 million in matching funds from rural utility provider Kinetic by Windstream.

“There’s so much going on across the state,” says Michael Foor, president of Georgia state operations for Kinetic by Windstream. The company, which is a utility aggregation that started as small rural phone providers, covers 18 states, Foor said.

“Windstream has committed to invest approximately $2 billion in our footprint, and we are budgeting for this cash inflow considering how to match this with other opportunities, such as state fiscal stimulus funds and the RDOF (the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund) and the federal infrastructure bill,” Foor says. “We have 10,000 employees, but we’re still a rural provider, and our employees live in and serve these rural areas.”

Improving internet access for rural areas has long been a priority, but the pandemic has heightened the urgency of work and a windfall of resources has enabled investments that would otherwise be financially unsustainable, says Taylre Beaty, director of the state broadband for the Department of Tennessee. Economic and community development.

“The state and federal government are investing in broadband infrastructure because it eases the burden on providers in their development plans and gives them a better business case,” Beaty said. “It gives them the opportunity to access capital support and fund some of the construction of those areas where no one will be servicing them anytime soon.”

The $1 trillion federal infrastructure plan includes $65 billion to improve internet services for rural areas, low-income families and tribal communities. Most of the funds will be made available through state grants. In Tennessee, Beaty’s department has $400 million for broadband infrastructure through federal pandemic relief programs and is accepting applications through mid-March from internet providers seeking to expand Internet access to unserved and underserved areas, Beaty said.

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Online Anywhere: Rural Broadband Boosted by Pandemic Funds and Work-from-Home Demand

“Anyone licensed to provide broadband services in Tennessee can apply,” she says. “There are speed requirements for the build side, but anyone can apply.”

High-speed internet access is a critical part of attracting new businesses and residents to rural communities, but the pandemic has made it a must-have for everything from education to medical care, Beaty says.

“It’s something that 10 years ago you probably could have done without an internet connection, but today, and especially after the pandemic, people need to work from home, access healthcare health and education,” she said. “You just can’t do this without an internet connection.”

Work from (almost) anywhere

The pandemic opened up a world of work-from-home opportunities that prompted people to consider moving to smaller towns and remote communities, and the Hader family was at the forefront of this trend. At the start of the pandemic, stuck in a small house with three children just outside Austin, the Haders quickly began to crave legroom, says Joe Hader.

“One of the shifts in perspective for a lot of people was the ordeal of having kids at home while you work,” says Hader, whose children are now 9, 7 and 4. “It was such a small house, such a small garden – what are we supposed to do with these children?”

According to a Gallup poll, 48% of Americans at the end of 2020 said they would choose a city or rural area over a city or suburb if they could live where they wanted. Just a few years ago, in 2018, 39% thought a city or rural area would be ideal.

But the work-from-home movement only extends to broadband, says Charlie Boring, general manager of Bledsoe Telephone Cooperative, which in 2016 launched an aggressive campaign to roll out fiber in Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties in Tennessee. .

“The growth of this region is incredible now,” Boring says. “People are realizing you can get good broadband in those areas and work from home.”

Bledsoe Telephone Company, doing business as BTC Fiber, has just over 10,000 customers across 800 square miles and has prioritized getting fiber to every home in its service area, starting with cities the most populated in Dunlap and Pikeville, says Boring.

“We’re probably about 40% complete on our fiber-to-the-home network, but we only have 20 or 30% of our customer base left in that 60% [of the service area] – these are the most expensive areas we are currently exploring,” says Boring. “At this point, we probably have about 12 people per mile of line we’re building.

Earl Kelly Summersett and his wife, Candace Clackner, among them. They had lived in neighborhoods near downtown Chattanooga for years, but hoped to one day build a house in the woods. The women spent two years searching for the perfect property in the area.

“There were places where it was always the first thing we checked – how’s the internet here?” Summersett said.

The remote 10-and-a-half acres in Sequatchie County they moved to in November came with trees, a stream, a view and — most importantly — fiber internet, Summersett says.

world Wide Web

While broadband adoption has not increased significantly for urban and suburban Americans over the past five years, rural residents have seen a 9 percentage point increase in home broadband adoption. since 2016, when around six in ten (63%) said they had a high-speed internet connection at home. About seven in ten rural Americans (72%) report having a high-speed Internet connection at home, according to a Pew Research Center survey of American adults conducted from January 25 to February 8, 2021.

“Where we are is new ground for all utility companies, so Bledsoe [Telephone Cooperative] had to go out and do a lot of digging and put in a lot of fiber just for us,” she says. “They were like, ‘Yeah sure.’ They were so helpful, easy to work with and punctual.”

Bledsoe Telephone Cooperative leverages a wide array of state and federal resources to keep everything running, and the utility plans to have 100% fiber to homes in its coverage area by the end of 2024, Boring says.

“In some of those areas, you’re talking about $32,000 per mile to get it to the poles, and $1,500 to $2,000 to get from that pole to the customer’s house,” he says. “Our total investment when we looked at this to cover the whole area is probably $60-70 million.”

Financial partnerships are crucial to making the math work in bringing broadband to rural areas, says Beaty.

“We have a lot of really good vendors across the state who want to be creative and scrappy and problem solve and serve their community,” she says.

In addition to the challenges around paying for broadband, there are big barriers to mapping the need across all regions to get a holistic view, says Shannon Millsaps, director of operations for Thrive Regional Partnership, which focuses on promoting of responsible growth in a 16-county area. .

“The data that exists with respect to address-level service is not accurate, it is historically unreliable,” Millsaps says. “It’s self-reported by the suppliers.”

In June, Thrive launched the Regional Broadband Alliance, a group of more than 40 organizations and individuals interested in expanding equitable broadband Internet access in the region. In addition to supporting efforts to expand broadband, the group focuses on affordability for people who live in areas where broadband is available but resources are scarce.

“The latest federal infrastructure bill provides a lot of funding for broadband expansion, digital literacy and equity programs – we want to make sure people in our counties have the information they need. to leverage those dollars,” Millsaps said.

Broadband access is a crucial and universal tool for economic development, but each community will face different challenges in expanding access, she says.

“When you talk about everywhere from South Pittsburg to Chattanooga to Benton, there’s a wide range of these ground-level community needs,” says Millsaps. “Collaborative partnerships are key and every community is different.”

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