Rural broadband: a telework bottleneck?

The idea of quickly getting information to/from rural areas has been around for a long time. In 1970, during my rocket scientist days, I gave a briefing to Jim Fletcher, the incoming head of NASA, on the civilian applications of space. One of the scenarios I presented was that of communications satellites used as a method of relaying information to rural areas. In that case it was medical information from the National Library of Medicine to Ethiopia where there was a famine. Primitive telemedicine. There was no rural broadband then.

Since then, with the rise of the internet, information flow has drastically increased, at least to cities. To rural areas it’s often a different story. Rapid access to information, particularly broadband information, has become vital to many people all over the world. Yet rural areas often are still left out of the picture.

For example, an article by Marsha Zager in Broadband Communities Magazine focuses on the problems of delivering telemedicine to rural areas. The emphasis is on the meeting the need for broadband to deliver sophisticated services to rural areas versus the costs of delivering them. That’s the same problem as expanding telework to rural areas.

Infrastructure cost: the gorilla in the corner

The fundamental problem, of course, is when wires/fibers are the means of transmission of information. In urban areas the high concentration of destinations means that it doesn’t cost much in infrastructure to add another user. In rural areas the wide dispersion of clients means that the infrastructure cost per additional user can be much higher. For example, optical fiber costs from $10K to $12K per mile just for the fiber, excluding purchases of rights of way, equipment, maintenance, etc. If the fiber goes, say, an additional 15 miles instead of 150 feet just to serve a single client then it is clear why utilities are reluctant to serve rural areas. Broadband over wires is expensive.

Now, in the scenario I presented to NASA in 1970 I assumed that the information transmission was primarily by satellite and largely narrowband. There were no distribution costs beyond that of the satellite data receiver. Problem solved? Not exactly. In these days a stream of text data is not enough; video bandwidths, broadband, is required. For both telemedicine and teleworking. So freeing telecommunications from the constraints of wires/fiber is still a powerful force for expanding the economies of rural areas in much of the developing world. Cellphones make a good start.

Dumping the wires

But cellphones, as useful as they may be, are not great (yet) at providing the richness of detail needed for many forms of work, especially telemedicine. The 4G cellphone networks, as amazing as they may be, can be marginal for work requiring high definition video. In fact, much as I have resisted it over the years, face-to-face interaction is still felt to be a requirement for many types of knowledge jobs. I know, I know, time and again we and others have demonstrated that face-to-face interaction isn’t really necessary for most types of work; telework productivity increases either way.

Therefore, the key to more and better teleworking often is in convincing management that the teleworker’s environment is as good as, or even better than, that crowded, noisy office. Adding high definition video to the technology mix may be what’s needed to convince management or physicians if only because it seems to be better, more comfortable with it.

And just ahead is the promise of 5G networking. Broadband may be coming to your community wherever you are. No wirelines needed. Progress stumbles on.

Can you hardly wait?

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