Haven’t you noticed that these days it’s easier for some to whine about circumstances than it is to act? And I totally get it, sometimes finding a solution and being proactive is a little scary and kind of “puts you out there.” But doing just that is what a number of NTCA members have now done in seeking USDA ReConnect support over the past few months.
This new grant, grant/loan and loan program at USDA, authorized and funded by Congress, has been another brick in the yellow brick road of building broadband in rural America. These community based local providers have done a yeoman’s job of building broadband to their communities despite the high cost and logistical challenges. According to NTCA’s most recent broadband survey, these rural broadband providers continue to lead efforts to bridge the digital divide (or the rural/rural divide!) through faster internet speeds and higher adoption rates.
NTCA members report that over 60 percent of their customers have access to broadband speeds of at least 100Mbps and more than 75% of their customers have access to the FCC’s current target of 25 Mbps baseline for universal broadband. And building future-proofed networks and doing it right the first time has been a high priority for our members with NTCA members reporting more than 25 percent of customers in these very rural areas having access to Gigabit services – even in the face of great challenges of distance and density that drive higher costs.
But there are many parts of the country literally begging for broadband access. I often receive calls from consumers in rural communities NOT served by our membership wondering what they can do, who they can connect with, how do they start a co-op or where do they even begin. Love to help everyone of them but we still have a system that has not motivated the larger carriers to “get real” about where they are actually willing to build and serve.
Just this weekend, I had a LinkedIn connection and conversation from a gentleman in North Dakota who shared that he has been without landline service for over 2 weeks now – landline service – the most basic of connectivity rights for Americans. Additionally, his large carrier has shown no interest in bringing broadband out to his farm. I am not surprised. If you can’t even bother to fix phone service, broadband deployment seems….ah…less likely!
However, in the spirit of working with providers who really do see themselves as part of the solution, I caught a pre-dawn flight this morning to balmy Fargo (really hoping that low of -12 was just a guess from the Weather Channel!) to proudly join our members at Polar and Dakota Central at DCN, along with USDA for the announcement of a joint effort between the two North Dakota cooperatives and the USDA ReConnect program to build broadband out to North Dakotans who are currently unserved and beyond anxious about being left behind without access to the world beyond their state borders. While much of the USDA support will include grant funding, both cooperatives are also willing to put in a great deal of their own cash resources to get the job done for those unserved.
Maybe this award in North Dakota is fitting given that this is a state that has done it right. BAND (Broadband Association of North Dakota, lead by the unflappable David Crothers) is comprised of 15 community based providers who now serve 96 percent of the land mass of the state. Nearly 300 North Dakota communities and surrounding rural areas have access to Gigabit service and these locally-owned companies can be found in every one of North Dakota’s 53 counties. They have built solid relationships with their state legislators and worked to get some of the easements and rights of ways issues taken care of that can impede deployment and they have told their story of service and innovation to their leading congressional delegation for years – all of who have become huge champions for rural broadband and help lead the development of this USDA program. They have worked with USDA to tell the story of what is really happening on the ground in the state and they have never stopped their efforts to build future-proof networks even when others have been willing to settle for wireless technology that may quickly outlive its capacity.
I was excited to join Karl Blake and Amber Meyer from Polar, Keith Larson and Craig Headland from Dakota Central and Clare Carlson, state director of Rural Development for USDA in North Dakota for this announcement and to hear more about their vision for helping all of North Dakota realize the power of broadband connectivity.
Do you know what I am also excited about? I get to share a “fairy tale” ending for the farmer who reached out to me this weekend to tell him that indeed, broadband is coming, thanks not to Wall Street, but thanks to the community based provider not too far down the road who was game to partner with the government to get the job done!