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Rural internet challenges magnified under stay-at-home mandates

A July 21st online virtual meeting of the Whatcom County Public Utility District No. 1 Board brought together people from the Skagit Utility District, Port of Bellingham, City of Bellingham and a local citizen advocate for broadband implementation to discuss the state of broadband internet access and what attempts have been made to improve it.

Everyone in the meeting agreed access to broadband internet service, as opposed to slow, spotty or no service at all, was inadequate, especially in less-populated rural areas.

Internet service provider companies are able to profitably build the necessary infrastructures to provide service up to a point. When faced with a request to provide service to new locations, they have to calculate whether the cost will be recouped quick enough via expected service fees. The expense of extending and maintaining service to sparsely populated outlying areas is often not justified by the expected revenue from providing the service, especially when compared to the much more favorable return on investment available in more densely populated areas.

Government and utility districts are investigating the feasibility of building and maintaining these “last mile” segments and leasing them to the internet service providers in order to make servicing these outlying areas financially feasible. Federal grant funding available to cover part or all of the cost.

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In December of 2018, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a pilot program offering federal funding to be used toward broadband deployment in rural areas. The ReConnect Program, as it is called, will award grants, loans and grant/loan combinations to entities capable of providing retail broadband service with a minimum 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds to customers in rural areas currently lacking sufficient broadband access. To date, nearly $776-million has been committed through the ReConnect Program.

A first-round and only Washington state recipient of the Reconnect Program so far is Mason County Public Utility District No. 3. They were awarded a 100% grant of $2.5-million to provide broadband services to 163 households spread over 1.5-square-miles at a net cost of over $15,000 per household.

Another federal funding program, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction, was announced in 2019 and will award $20.4-billion over 10 years to fund rural networks that offer both broadband and voice services. 

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In a more immediate response to the need, Whatcom County Library System locations and Ferndale School District buildings have been providing free public accessible Wi-Fi service accessible from their parking lots for several months.

In the meantime, SpaceX, a private enterprise out of California, has low-orbit satellites in place able to provide low-cost broadband service. There are nearly 600 satellites in orbit with thousands more approved to be launched that will enable service anywhere on the globe. The service, known as Starlink, is currently in beta test phase for locations between 44 and 52 degrees north latitudes (northern US and southern Canada) with some participants reportedly in the Whatcom County area. A self-orienting outdoor dish antennae with an unobstructed view of the northern sky is used to send and receive signals.

Initial reports from Starlink beta testers are of download speeds of up to 60Mbps. Speculation has been service would be available to subscribers for less than $100 per month.

A news story was published by WRAL reported that when North Carolina state lawmakers gather next week, they will be asked to consider a $1-million request from the State Board of Education to create 1,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in parts of the state where physical broadband infrastructure is not feasible. This would be accomplished using the Starlink service.

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