Without broadband Internet, rural residents cannot access online classes, work remotely or videoconference with a physician, disadvantages that threaten to plunge these regions into economic, educational and health crises as the rest of the country advances toward ultra-fast broadband and 5G, advocates say.
Colorado has an ambitious plan to reverse the situation for the 30% of rural residents who lack broadband Internet. By the end of next year, Governor John Hickenlooper has set a goal for rural access to reach 85% by 2018 and 100% by 2020. Within the past six months, access reached 77% from 71%, said Tony Neal-Graves, executive director of Colorado's Broadband Office and a 16-year veteran of Intel, where he most recently was vice president of the Internet of Things group and general manager of the Industrial and Energy Solutions division. Neal-Graves joined the state's broadband team in early March 2017.
"What I've found so far is that there is no one solution to the broadband issue in these communities. In some communities they have good broadband service running nearby and the challenge is how do I get that last-mile of connectivity to the home? Or in other cases they don't even have that and you have to solve what people describe as being that middle mile problem between poor networking infrastructure that exists and getting closer to the community itself," he told UBB2020. "It boils down to how much can you afford to spend because it's a cost issue. It's about building out the infrastructure into the community."
Many travel to Colorado's mountains to disconnect, but lack of ultra-broadband harms rural residents, businesses and tourists, says Tony Neal-Graves, executive director of the state's Broadband Office.
Colorado has awarded $2.1 million in grants so far this year, and is working with a swathe of stakeholders -- from communication service providers and cable operators to electric utilities and co-ops -- to accomplish its goal, Neal-Graves said.
"[Ultra-broadband] is foundational," he said. "To me, it's like having running water or electricity. As much as I believe the perfect answer is fiber everywhere; if you have fiber optics to your home or premises, there's nothing faster than speed of light. Microwave will, I think, continue to be an important piece of it. Right now, my personal view is that the technologies are there. There are a lot of technologies available. This is more about creating business models for how you can get this thing deployed at areas where the traditional ROI calculations are still under work."
Multiple roads, one goal
Although rural communities might take different paths to high-speed broadband connectivity, they all have one goal -- and it's not Netflix.
"This is really about economic development, it's about providing better healthcare services, it's about public safety, it's a whole host of things that come into play and each community is trying to figure out a strategy that works for them," said Neal-Graves. "I've been in the job for five weeks and every local community and town, government has reached out to me. They're bringing up their issues and their concerns, looking for support, because all of them understand that this is an economic issue. This is not about watching movies."
Even those looking to escape from it all by spending time in Colorado's mountains want to log-on to share social media posts and catch up on office email, added Tauna Lockhart, IT Economic Development and chief communications officer in the Governor's Office of Information Technology.
So remote tourist destinations that don't have fiber or an alternate high-speed broadband technology can lose business, said Neal-Graves. "They might visit you once but they'll never come back. It's become a national expectation in people's lives, being connected when you want to be," he said.
— Alison Diana, Editor, UBB2020. Follow us on Twitter @UBB2020 or @alisoncdiana.