Thoughts on rural broadband

The following announcement showed up in my email recently:

The Broadband Opportunity Council (Council), the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) are requesting public comment to inform the deliberations of the Council. Stakeholders have the opportunity to review the Federal Register Notice and submit written comments by e-mail to BOCrfc2015@ntia.doc.gov on or before 5 p.m. Eastern time on June 10, 2015.

Details of the request can be found in the Federal Register. One of the impacts of improved rural telecommunications access is increased opportunities for telework.  Here are some of my thoughts on the topic.

As the Internet becomes more pervasive, reaching households and communities all over the world, it changes from an interesting toy to a necessity. The Internet has become an economic necessity; businesses everywhere now rely on the Internet for their existence and means of expansion. In the United States at least 60% of the workforce holds what is known as information or knowledge jobs. Today almost all of these jobs depend in some way on the smooth functioning of the Internet or other types of broadband telecommunications networks. Increasingly, with the growing complexity of business operations, the demand for broadband access grows as well. This is true for both urban and rural areas of the country.

In particular, supposedly unrelated areas of urban traffic congestion, air pollution, and climate change are connected to the use of broadband networking. Networking can be a means of reducing traffic congestion, air pollution and the rate of climate change. My research, as well as that of others, has shown that telecommuting definitely decreases overall use of transportation, thereby producing the desired results on environmental change. Teleworkers also are demonstrably more productive than their non-teleworking colleagues. In short, the more that people telework the more they aid the environment and the economy.

The greatest impact of telework in the urban environment is produced by telecommuting: the use of network technology to eliminate some or all of the daily commute from home to and from the workplace. By sending the work to the worker instead of transporting the worker to work.

In the rural environment the impact of telework is different. High-quality telecommunications networks can provide access to jobs in remote locations, thereby increasing the economic vitality both of individuals and rural communities. Telework helps to level the playing field regarding access to jobs. It potentially helps to reverse the situation where young people leave rural communities in order to find work in the “big city”. Keeping them at home brightens the future of the communities they would otherwise leave.

Thus broadband telecommunications can serve as an important tool for increasing the economic vitality of the entire country, not just that of certain areas. So just how much “broadband” is necessary for all these wonders to occur?

The FCC’s definition of broadband is 25 Mbps for download speeds and 3 Mbps for upload speeds.

<rant>Such speeds, at least for business access, are a mirage where I live. JALA is a small organization operating in that high tech region of the world: West Los Angeles. Our “broadband” access is via cable. We pay the cable provider $135 monthly in order to get 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload to the Internet; 40% of the FCC’s minimum standard for download and one-third of that standard for upload speed. To upgrade our service to surpass the FCC minimum bandwidth would increase our cost to more than $300 monthly. If we were to switch to a residential subscription, hiding the fact that we’re a business, our bandwidth would be at least four times the FCC minimum at a cost slightly less than our current cable service. The difference between business and residential charges is attributed to the supposedly higher data usage (wear and tear of the electrons) of business over residential activity as well as more rapid service response for businesses.

Previous to our cable subscription our Internet access was by the local telephone service. In that case our maximum bandwidth was about 500 kbps for the same price as our current cable bill. Both the cable and telephone companies claim(ed) that our internet access was “broadband”. In short, broadband, as defined by the FCC,  is simply not available at a reasonable price even to millions of people in large American cities, much less to those living in rural areas. In effect, we are in a rural area within our second largest city.</rant>

It is possible to telework successfully under the less-than-FCC-standard conditions we have at JALA. However, the bandwidth available to us now is the bare minimum for such work. It allows us to videoconference to other countries (as long as we don’t move too fast) and perform other tasks which otherwise would occur in a setting requiring a physical presence. Twenty years ago none of this would have been possible. I know because I tried it 20 years ago. But with contemporary technology it is quite possible for many people to telework, both successfully and frequently. If they have real FCC-defined broadband access to the Internet — and if their organization operates with a 21st century management style.

Forty years ago telework was primarily limited to telework centers and satellite offices, as they were known then. Available telecommunications technology in that era was simply insufficient — and too expensive — to support other than simple data entry tasks for home-based telecommuters. Now, however, at least 40% of the American workforce could be teleworking at least part-time from their homes – provided that they had access to broadband technology as defined by the FCC. The consequences of that access would be significant in terms of improved productivity, reduced traffic congestion, diminished air pollution, reduced consumption of fossil fuels and increased energy savings. Of course, widespread access of broadband communications is not the only barrier to such a goal but such access would greatly diminish the effectiveness of other barriers – such as the dominant one: resistance to change on the part of management.

Therefore any federal agency — or private telecommunications supplier — should be required to demonstrate that it complies with the FCC’s definition, at the minimum, in its provision of broadband telecommunications services. That achievement would greatly improve the opportunities in rural areas for economic development comparable to that of cities.

If you support this effort please respond to the Federal Register request by June 10, 2015.

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