Rural areas wait for current generation of connectivity

An economy of haves and have nots could be emerging, based on lacking internet connectivity in rural areas, according to joint studies by the FCC and Microsoft.

As consumer based businesses increasingly go online in America’s urban areas, rural businesses struggle to keep pace and compete.

“Every day the world is becoming more digital. Cloud computing combined with new productivity, communication and intelligent tools and services enable us to do more, do it more quickly and in ways that were simply unimaginable a generation ago. But participating in this new era requires a high-speed broadband connection to the internet,” said Microsoft President Brad Smith in a recent update on the company’s efforts to bring broadband to rural areas.

Despite recent federal spending to the tune of $22 billion to entice private entities to run rural lines, the report says that the adoption of broadband has leveled off since 2013.

Additionally, without a proper broadband connection, these communities can’t start or run a modern business, access telemedicine, take an online class, digitally transform their farm or research a school project online.

The finding conflicts with FCC indications that 81 percent of Steuben County’s consumers have access to broadband service. As a result, 18,000 go without service, according to the figures.

In Allegany County, 72.9 percent have the ability to subscribe to a broadband service, and 13,000 lack access.

Neighboring Livingston County comes in at 87.2 percent access, 8,000 are without access; and in Yates County, 70.2 percent have access to broadband service, leaving 7,000 without.

However, that’s fortunate compared to some areas. In Hamilton County, broadband is available to just 21 percent of residents. Nationwide, roughly 25 million do not have access, and there are dozens of counties that have less than 10 percent access for residents.

Microsoft’s report lauded public-private partnerships like the ones ongoing in New York State to provide service. But, it urged companies and governments to do more and build wireless infrastructure.

"While we’ve made significant progress, we know there’s a lot more to do to bring broadband to every American. That’s why we are raising our ambition as a company and encourage the federal, state and local governments to do the same,” a statement from company President Brad Smith said.

In Steuben County, local companies like Addison-based Armstrong and Prattsburgh Empire Access are among the companies working with New York State to connect residents to broadband for the first time.

Armstrong’s work is currently ongoing in the Village of North Hornell, causing new utility poles to be installed throughout the village, as well as throughout Allegany County. 

The $500 million New NY Broadband Program, initiated by Governor Andrew Cuomo, is funded through capital resources from bank settlements.

The picture is not the same nationwide. Currently, just 16 states have ongoing commercial partnerships, and four have pilot programs to test the idea.

In 2017, Microsoft’s Airband initiative promised to bring service to 2 million by 2022, now the company says rapid progress will allow it to expand to 3 million.

“And above all, this requires speed — internet speed. We all need to move faster. It took 50 years to electrify the nation. The millions of Americans waiting for broadband don’t have the luxury of time,” Smith urged.