Connecting rural communities could benefit everyone in many ways
On June 15th in a rare act of bipartisanship, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed house bill HB5 which aims to bring high speed internet within the reach of the more isolated rural communities within the state.
The "Texas Broadband Bill" will establish a Broadband Development Office within the state government, and aims to demonstrate measurable progress in broadening access to high speed internet across the state within one year of the bill becoming law on September 1st.
Other recent announcements from Abbott - including those that widen access to medical marijuana or launch projects to build a crowd-funded wall along the border with Mexico - have drawn criticism from various Texans depending on their political preferences. This one has been welcomed unanimously.
An essential for daily life
For most of us, access to the Internet is taken for granted in our daily lives - if you're reading this article (for example) then you likely assume (as I do) that high-speed access is available at all times. But for many living in rural areas or under-developed countries, this is not a reality.
According to recent data from Statista, 48.6% of the world's population is not yet online. Around 27,000 people gain Internet access every hour, and 69.8% of households in the Americas have Internet access. That still leaves a long way to go.
Many have come to rely on internet access in their daily lives all the more since Covid-19 struck. It's become an essential for daily life, in much the same way as we rely on readily available water or electricity in our homes.
Internet access has enabled home schooling, home working and for many, access to healthcare and health insurance services where social distancing and stay-at-home orders prevented many from leaving their homes.
Indeed, figures released within the first few months of Covid-19 lockdowns showed that internet usage had increased by 70%. Use of streaming services like Netflix and Disney+ also increased by over 12%.
It's not just about convenience either - many studies have highlighted the effects that are directly linked to Internet access including economic opportunity and social mobility. If you're denied access then there's a good chance you'll have less opportunities in your life to accrue wealth or to improve your life more generally.
How to bring broadband to rural areas?
One challenge that will need to be overcome by the Texas Broadband Development Office is in how to bring high speed internet to remote and rural areas. In cities (for example), the fastest and simplest connections are made possible by copper or fiber-optic cables that are prevalent and readily available. But extending these services into remote areas is often not cost-effective or viable for service providers.
The Brookings Institute has highlighted a number of key actions that need to be taken if all American households are to gain access, including measures to improve funding for expansion and to lower the cost to households (highlighting that a typical broadband connection costs over $60 per month which is unaffordable for many).
In practical terms the options are a little more fundamental and mostly come down to technology. Aside from broadening the rollout of physical cabling and satellite connectivity, options include:
- Rollout of smartphones to areas with network coverage as has been done successfully in rural areas of Brazil and India
- Internet deployed over electricity network grids
- Partnered initiatives to deploy wireless network grids (as has been successfully piloted in a joint venture between Microsoft and AirJaldi to bring WiFi access to rural areas of India)
The means that will be used in Texas to extend Internet access to all citizens of the state remains to be seen. Clearly though it's an initiative that seems to favor all citizens rather than just a subset based on their political preferences. That must be seen as a good thing for Texas.
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