In dense urban areas, providing internet access is easy. There are multiple service providers, fiber connections, cable internet, and more.
Providing internet access for rural areas is a different story. The Pew Center found that only 63% of rural Americans have internet access at home in 2019. There are rural-specific challenges that internet service providers serving rural customers need to overcome.
Rural Internet Access Challenge 1: Physical Barriers
In rural areas, physical barriers and the natural world present increased challenges. For example, what if there is a large hill between your office and a customer farm? In that scenario, it is going to be challenging to maintain a stable line of sight. As a result, your customers may complain about an unreliable internet connection.
Hills and mountains are just one example of physical barriers at work. You also need to contend with lakes, rivers, and forests in rural areas. These challenges to robust internet service also change with the seasons. In the autumn, leaves fall, and this may affect power lines and sensitive equipment.
According to the Handbook of Research on Public Information Technology, “water acts as the key interruption for wireless frequencies and all plant life contains water within their structures.” Natural forests and trees are just the start of this barrier. The presence of plants on farms may also cause interference with wireless internet signals.
Rural Internet Access Challenge 2: Increasing Demand For Telework and Telehealth
The demand for internet access and bandwidth is increasing. It is no longer good enough to have occasional email and web access. Modern internet services require much higher bandwidth. In 2020, the explosion of remote work has changed the situation. Gallup research found that 62% of Americans worked remotely as of March 2020.
However, rural areas continue to lag in internet quality. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University found the bandwidth gap is worse than many would have thought. As reported in Journalist’s Resource, “the research team, led by telecommunications professor Sascha Meinrath at The Pennsylvania State University, found there were no counties in the state — none — where at least half of people had access to the FCC’s speed standard.”
The FCC speed standard, known as 25/3, defines advanced bandwidth as 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 megabits upload speed. Without these speeds, participating in video calls, conference platforms, and other modern tools becomes much less stable or even impossible in some cases.
Beyond work requirements, rural areas have limited access to telehealth facilities. Providing health advice online is challenging. Without a high-quality video link, this challenge becomes even worse. As more people put remote work and telehealth demands on rural internet service providers, the existing infrastructure is going to face serious problems keeping up.
Growing up in a rural community, I know firsthand the importance of access to quality healthcare. #COVID19 highlighted Ohio’s need for #telehealth services, which has given many the ability to connect to quality care from the comfort and safety of their own homes.— Congressman Troy Balderson (@RepBalderson) June 18, 2020
Rural Internet Access Challenge 3: Limited Company Growth and Resources
In contrast to the other challenges, this challenge may be more difficult to notice. You’re used to running your business, so you might not notice your limitations. For example, your customer might sign up for multiple video streaming services. Successfully servicing that level of demand may put a heavy strain on your bandwidth.
Smaller internet service companies in rural areas have historically struggled to build out more infrastructure. They do not have the option to spread out their network costs across millions of customers. Further, some rural internet service providers will not be able to borrow funds from the financial markets at low rates like national telecom carriers.
Lower investment in improving internet service in rural areas also faces other kinds of resistance. A 2015 study on internet access in the 13 Appalachian states found that “broadband internet service providers [are] less likely to provide services in sparsely populated areas because it initially has a lower return on investment and is less cost-effective.” If internet service providers see no prospect for a reasonable return on their investment, we are unlikely to see significant improvements.
Ask rural WISP their biggest issues - they will say 1-adequate backhaul (need fibre to most towers) 2-economic access to passive infrastructure (can't pay carrier rates to access towers).— 🗼TowerGuy🌲 (@tower_Guy) May 7, 2020
Plan should include subsidized multi-tenant passive infrastructure and Fiber to the Tower
Three Ways To Solve Internet Problems for Rural Areas
None of these challenges are impossible to solve. Government programs like the federal Lifeline program aimed at low-income consumers have a role to play. However, those programs are not enough to overcome barriers to access. Unfortunately, adoption rates for these programs have been limited. To improve access, these strategies may help.
1) Focus on The Rural Business Market
Some people and organizations have a higher demand for rural internet access than others. Research has found that 90% of rural small businesses want internet access vs. 74% of households. Therefore, it makes sense to focus on the small business market first because they have a greater interest in internet access.
After building a customer base with those customers, wireless internet service providers will have an economic base to expand service to households.
2) Promote Rural Internet Access For Growth
Economic growth and employment gains are very unevenly distributed across the United States. Many urban areas have seen a long-standing boom in economic growth. In contrast, rural areas have struggled with growth. Further, there is increasing evidence that many people in rural areas are moving away to other areas to find jobs and business opportunities. If this trend continues, rural areas will be left behind.
This economic disparity presents an opportunity for community engagement. Consider seeking out partnerships with governments. At the federal level, the E-BRIDGE Act is one promising example that may lead to increased rural Internet access.
3) Enhance Wireless Internet Service Quality and Coverage
Working with governments to improve funding and make internet access is helpful. It would help if you still had the hardware to provide access and extend your coverage area. To add more coverage to your wireless internet service, consider BLiNQ’s FW-300i Network Solution in a Box.
Buying the FW-300i is just one part of your overall wireless provider equipment. There are other systems, maintenance items, and products you need to buy. To help guide you through the options, take a look at our guide: Wireless Internet Service Provider Equipment: What To Buy Now Vs. Later.