This past week was Digital Inclusion Week, which raises awareness about the inequality of internet access. According to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, the campaign works to ensure “all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy.” The digital inclusion gap largely occurs in more rural communities, where connectivity can be especially scarce, and census data inaccuracies result in less federal support for network infrastructure improvements.

For this reason, solving rural connectivity issues has become a major point of focus at telecommunication events around the country, including Great Lakes Connect in Wisconsin, where this year’s conference theme was “the future of digital communities.” Panelists narrowed in on a few immediate solutions, such as leveraging existing fiber assets, and working toward a shared infrastructure resource model.

View from Great Lakes Connect, an event covering how shared infrastructure can improve rural connectivity.

How it Works

It’s never easy to start from scratch, as is the case with broadband networks. Communities who use existing infrastructure to facilitate their fiber buildout save tremendous amounts of time and money. Rights-of-way, as well as electrical utility poles, are commonly used to carry fiber into rural communities, but require some negotiation depending on whether or not the infrastructure is privately owned or belongs to the municipality.

In a lot of communities, poles are owned by telephone or electric companies, which could create conflict if these companies were to compete with the broadband provider to offer communication services. Alternatively, some municipalities are beginning to require shared use of rights-of-way, citing it as essential to the prosperity of the community’s citizens and local economy. However, one of the barriers to providing high-speed access in rural areas is that the rights-of-way areas are becoming overcrowded, as many providers even use their own conduit. HR Green, a civil engineering firm based in Iowa, spoke at Great Lakes Connect and advised municipalities to provide duct banks, and require providers to lease them to preserve space within the rights-of-way.

Next Steps

The benefits of access to high speed internet in remote areas are unmistakable; it provides access to healthcare, education, remote work opportunities, public safety information, and happens to be the number one way to attract and retain young residents in rural communities. Rural broadband access is clearly a crucial yet unmet need, and there are in fact many existing, unused fiber strands, but their deployment has been severely uncoordinated, and they each predominantly serve as a “highway” for a single provider. 

Future community networks must adopt shared infrastructure, including conduit, excess fiber, ducts, and other supplies, to be financially viable and have the greatest impact and reach. Regulators must develop policies to encourage, reward, and promote building excess capacity with State and Federal subsidies to allow the same “highway” to serve a maximum number of users, and improve connectivity in our rural communities.

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