Original Post | April 28, 2019 | Forbes Magazine
This article is the second in a series of four describing the positive effects of the rise of technology as both an infrastructure sector and credit factor in the municipal bond market. Part one is called The Rise Of The Technology Infrastructure Sector In The Municipal Bond Market. Those states, cities, counties and towns applying technology to assess and deliver services more efficiently and effectively are positioning themselves to be future-ready. Internet connectivity is both future-now and future-ready. This second article delves into internet connectivity solutions for digitally underserved communities.
The Utility of the Internet
In a digital world, internet connectivity is as essential a utility as water and power. In every part of our lives, be it work or home, we rely on the internet for products and services to be delivered—either online or physically—in a timely, efficient, and economical manner. In fact, in all likelihood, you are reading this article online through a connected device.
Yet, according to FCC data, 19 million people in the U.S. still lack access to fixed broadband service at speeds sufficient to meet even their most rudimentary digital needs. Downloading a web page feels like it takes forever and downloading a YouTube video takes even longer. It’s worse for rural areas. Nearly one-fourth of that population—14.5 million people—lack any access to internet services. In tribal areas, nearly one-third of the population lacks access.
Most of these broadband deficit counts come from incumbent providers. Doubts have been raised as to those numbers given the data collection methodology. Other counts, where the data is not self-reported by incumbent providers, have the number of people without access significantly higher.
There is no disagreement with one fact. In every single state, some portion of the population does not have access to broadband. Some residents have no internet access at all. Moreover, of those with access, 61% have only one choice of an internet service provider, a figure rising to 90% in low income, rural, and tribal areas.
Even in areas where broadband is available, approximately 100 million Americans still do not subscribe.
There are a variety of reasons, of course, but cost is consistently among the top. Closely tied with that is a lack of provider choice. Finally, there is just poor service due to old technology—decade-old copper wire is simply unable to handle today’s growing data loads and those first-generation wireless systems have limited ranges.
Equally, there is little disagreement that open access fiber networks bring substantive benefits to a community. High-speed internet and internet-enabled services expand telehealth; enhance educational opportunities; create jobs; attract business; generate revenue for the community; and lower prices for subscribers. Each of these offer credit improving impacts to a municipality in both the short and long term. Without it, communities potentially face becoming economic and social network deserts.
Moreover, deep fiber networks have the potential to transform struggling communities, forming the foundation for all next-generation infrastructure and reinvestment. According to a 2017 Deloitte study, “extending fiber deeper into communities is a critical economic driver, promoting competition, increasing connectivity for the rural and underserved, and supporting densification for wireless.”
That’s all well and good, but identifying, assessing, and connecting those underserved communities requires an accurate read of connectivity speed at the local level. America is a big country. Going to each community to collect internet speed data could be a daunting task. The problem of systematically gathering that data requires a solution.
At the Speed of Light
Enter the National Association of Counties. NACo is comprised of public service professionals from all 3,069 counties across the country. In programs from healthcare to social services to infrastructure to public safety, counties are often the first point of contact between citizens and government services.
More to the point for this exercise, a majority of counties are rural areas with low population density. These county officials are keenly interested in finding a solution; failing to secure high-speed internet connectivity means a serious risk of further separation by an ever-widening digital divide. To be future-ready, their communities need high-speed internet connections. Fiber optic broadband technology provides that, moving digital data with light. And nothing goes faster than the speed of light.