Cost to Connect Rural America: $19 Billion or Less
- By Dian Schaffhauser
A group of private and public organizations said that, for less than $20 billion, every unserved rural school, library, health provider and community college in the country that doesn't already have high-capacity broadband could get it and share it out. In a new study, the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition proposed that high-speed internet be fed to these "anchor institutions," which could then act as "middle-mile" providers to distribute the service to surrounding users through a mix of wired and wireless technologies.
The report comes on the heels of a Trump administration infrastructure plan that includes $50 billion set aside for rural projects, distributed to states in the form of block grants, and another $20 billion for unspecified "transformative projects"; both reference the possibility of increasing broadband facilities alongside road, bridge, rail, port and water initiatives.
According to the estimate, prepared for the coalition by public sector consultancy CTC Technology & Energy, the cost of deploying fiber to all the "remaining anchor institutions" — aside from those in Alaska — would run between $13 billion and $19 billion. The cost would vary based on whether the deployment was done in a "coordinated national effort" or handled in an "ad hoc manner over a very long period." No matter how it was achieved, however, the resulting infrastructure could provide broadband to 95 percent of the U.S. population within the same zip code as the anchor institution.
The model was developed by using federal government data that identifies the number of U.S. anchors and then estimating how many of those currently lack fiber connections. The country was divided into "into six standardized geographic typologies" (such as metro, desert, plains, etc.), and average costs to connect a single anchor within each typology were calculated. Expenses covered extending fiber from a central office, hub or backbone fiber interconnection point; entering the building; and installing the network components. For example, the average cost to connect an anchor in a rural western site ranged from a low of $56,000 to a high of $81,000, whereas doing so in a rural eastern location would be between $75,000 and $112,000.
If appropriate funding were found and those construction efforts were coordinated among state and regional authorities, the proposal asserted, a savings of up to 50 percent would be possible.
The report stated that the deployment costs could be reduced by using an open application process that would allow both commercial and non-commercial providers to bid. It also suggested that broadband infrastructure be opened to "interconnection," allowing existing infrastructure "to be used rather than building out additional, duplicative infrastructure."
"Now is the time to act. At least 19 million people still lack access to adequate broadband in rural areas," said John Windhausen, Jr., executive director of the SHLB Coalition, in a prepared statement. "Deploying high-capacity broadband to and through community anchor institutions to their communities is a proven and successful strategy."
The full report and an overview are openly available on the SHLB website.
Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @schaffhauser.