During his speech Monday at the American Farm Bureau Federation convention in Nashville, Tenn., President Donald Trump signed two executive orders aimed at improving broadband internet access to rural America.
The first order is aimed at easing the process to put private broadband infrastructure on federal property, and the second is a memorandum directing the Interior Department to work on a plan to increase access to their facilities for broadband deployment.
More than 34 million Americans are without access to affordable, reliable broadband service, said Zachary Cikanek, a national spokesman for Connect Americans Now, a coalition launched Jan. 2. Of those, 23.4 million live in rural communities.
“This gap is something we think we can bridge in the next five years if we roll out the right combination of technology,” Cikanek said.
Roughly 16 percent of Oregon’s population lives in rural areas, according to the USDA Economic Research Service.
Joe Franell, CEO of Eastern Oregon Telecom, said he was pleased at the prospect of being able to deal with government entities more quickly when trying to install fiber access in rural areas.
“One big barrier is that anyone building any infrastructure struggles to get a permit on federal land,” he said. He noted that locally, getting a permit is fairly routine, but dealing with federal government agencies can be a slow and difficult process.
“I was really excited about that aspect of the executive order,” he said. “If we can streamline the process to make it easier, we can have a substantive impact.”
He said a lot of rural counties have significant Bureau of Land Management or forestry lands, and it’s already expensive to build fiber into lightly populated counties.
“Getting it addressed at the federal level can be much more difficult,” he said.
Franell said EOT does about 100 fiber installations per month, but the majority of their customers are commercial entities, not homes. They cover areas from west of Boardman to Pendleton, on both sides of the Columbia River.
Franell said he was also interested in a part of the order that proposed increased access to towers on federal lands, especially in sparse and mountainous areas southeast of Hermiston. He said some areas of Eastern Oregon are so rural, they meet the definition of “frontier.” Those areas, he said, are often served with “fixed wireless,” with service from point to point.
“Towers can be a really efficient way of getting broadband in parts of the county that couldn’t justify building infrastructure,” he said.
Franell said building fiber into rural areas can be between 10 and 20 times more expensive than in areas with dense populations.
He said some companies have solved the problem by employing a hybrid approach to broadband infrastructure.
“You build fiber in areas with dense populations,” he said. “From there, you extend broadband with less dense delivery means, like cable or copper wire. In really lightly populated areas, you use wireless.”
He said eventually, as areas start to grow, companies can leverage the revenue from the hybrid approach to slowly expand the fiber footprint further out.
“I don’t know if it will ever be financially justifiable to build fiber to every home in America,” he said. “But we don’t have to get fiber to meet the needs of rural customers.”
Connect Americans Now believes it can pave the way for high-speed internet in every market nationwide by 2022. Several Oregon counties and farm groups, including Umatilla County, the Oregon Farm Bureau and Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, have joined the coalition in recent days.
Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said the county was working with the Association of Oregon Counties to advocate for broadband in the rural parts of the state, even though northern Umatilla County is more populated than most in Eastern Oregon.
“The southern parts of our county, as you branch out it becomes more remote,” he said. “This [...] will probably have more impact on them.”
But he said Umatilla County’s role as an economic hub makes it necessary to provide high-speed internet access to all areas of the county.
Murdock said he didn’t know of any immediate projects in the county that would take place as a result of the executive order, but said the county would be at the forefront of changes.
“The county will do everything in its power to be an active participant,” he said.
Faster connections is important for Northwest farmers and ranchers looking to adopt web-powered precision irrigation tools, such as real-time soil moisture monitors, to increase yields while reducing costs.
“As any farmer will tell you, it takes more than grit and determination to be successful in today’s market,” Cikanek said. “We need to let farmers access modern technologies.”
Richard Cullen, executive director of Connect Americans Now, also praised the Trump administration’s dedication to rural broadband on Monday following his speech at the American Farm Bureau Federation convention.
“No one has more grit and determination than American farmers, and we are excited to hear that President Trump is focused on unleashing that productivity by bringing broadband service into more rural communities,” Cullen said.
The coalition recently announced it will work with the Federal Communications Commission to establish policies that will allow rural broadband to flourish — namely by using what are known as “TV white spaces.”
TV white space refers to unused channels in television broadcasting, which act as interference buffers between active channels. The spectrum ranges from 470 to 790 megahertz, similar to what is used for 4G wireless networks.
If the FCC agrees to leave at least three white space channels vacant in every market, it may lead to more capital investment in rural high-speed internet service, Cikanek said.
“Right now, we are focused on regulatory certainty from the FCC,” he said.
Cullen said all Americans deserve access to high-speed internet, regardless of where they live.
“Without a broadband connection, millions of students struggle to keep up with their assignments, Americans in rural areas are unable to fully utilize telemedicine, farmers are denied the promise of precision agriculture and businesses are unable to tap into the world of online commerce,” Cullen said in a statement. “Congress and the FCC must stand with rural America by allowing internet service providers to deliver broadband via white spaces spectrum.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Jayati Ramakrishnan at 541-564-4534 or firstname.lastname@example.org