Rural Broadband Access: Why We Don’t Have it and What to Do About It

Last week, I talked about my own experiences as my husband and I tried to get a broadband connection in our rural neighborhood. This week, I want to discuss the reasons why rural areas have such poor access, and show you what you and your community can do about it.

Excuses, Excuses

The bottom line is that ISPs across the United States claim that the costs to bring broadband access to everyone is simply too high. They claim that the low population densities aren’t enough to support the burden of the extensive networks they’d need to supply.

However, when you dig a little deeper, you’ll start to see that the real issue isn’t that the ISPs will suddenly stop making a profit. Instead, rural broadband access means that they would make less profit.

In fact, the Huffington Post recently petitioned both Time Warner Cable and Comcast for a detailed report of their financials. What they found was quite shocking: Time Warner Cable has a 97% profit margin on internet service. In other words, the money that they collect from their customers is almost entirely profit compared to a very small number of expenses.

So that you can put this into perspective, here is a look at the actual numbers:

  • Between 2011 and 2013, customers were charged between $38.32 and $43.92 for high speed internet service.
  • In that same time period, it cost Time Warner Cable between $1.32 and $1.46 per subscriber for that service.
Time Warner Profit Margin

Will it cost more to bring internet service to rural areas than to urban ones? Of course it will. However, with 97% profit margins, one would think that ISPs could certainly afford it.

But Why Should ISPs Pay?

You might be thinking that it isn’t right to ask a business—no matter how large or profitable—to use those profits to develop into less profitable areas. And in most instances, I would agree with you 100%.

Until, that is, the product or service offered by the business becomes a necessity.

Think of it this way: No one truly needs expensive sneakers. Said sneakers won’t facilitate an education or give you a way to start a business. Therefore, the sneaker company is free to produce sneakers for $1 and sell them for $500.

The Internet, however, does give you these things. It’s not simply a way to shop or entertain yourself. The Internet has become a vital part of both our economy and our education system, and as such, should be available to all.

Rural Electrification Act

This Has Happened Before

For anyone who thinks I’m being unreasonable, I want to point out that rural Americans have been in this situation before, and it took an act of Congress to bring us out of it.

You see, in the 1930’s, 90% of urban and suburban Americans had access to electricity while only 10% of rural Americans were on the power grid. The President at the time – Franklin D. Roosevelt—recognized that not only was electricity a necessity to life, but that rural Americans, without access, were at a severe disadvantage.

Meanwhile, electric providers said the same thing that our modern ISPs say: The cost is too high for such a low population density. The Rural Electrification Act changed all of that and brought electric service to underserved Americans.

What You Can Do

There are several great ways to let your voice be heard:

1.) Contact Your Representatives: I’m not talking about your Congressman or Senator, although that’s a good start. By representatives, I mean local politicians and authorities that can effect change at the county or regional level. Write letters to state legislators, the county commissioner’s office and any other local or regional office that has authority over broadband in your area.

2.) Get in Touch with Local Initiatives: In Ohio, there are several organizations that are working to bring broadband access to underserved areas. You can contact the following to learn how you can help:

3.) Speak Out: Simply sharing articles about broadband access with your Facebook friends will help build awareness. However, if you want to take things a step further, start a conversation within your community by forming a committee. You can also let your voice be heard by refusing to pay for unreliable service and restrictive bandwidth caps.

4.) Call Your Nearby Providers: In my experience, an enormous number of rural residents live just outside of a service area, be it cable, DSL, wireless or cellular. In fact, the nearest home to me with DSL service is one mile away, and I can look across a cornfield to see the nearest home with cable access.

If you’re in this situation, call those nearby providers and ask the people in your community to do the same. You can gain even more traction by starting a petition. If enough people show interest, local providers are likely to consider expanding their network to your area.

If you want to contribute to this discussion, feel free to post a comment! I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas concerning the state of rural broadband access in Ohio and the United States.

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