Op-Ed: How the federal government could fix lack of internet access in rural America

By any measure, in some rural and outer-urban places, internet access is spotty. It’s about time that was fixed.

President Trump’s upcoming infrastructure proposal includes a proposal to address the problem. According to the plan, a new tool would be available to help private companies access more digital service in certain rural and remote areas. The committee said the new tool would be a form of universal service, a relic from the 1960s that requires telecommunications companies to provide service to everyone, especially those living in poor conditions, with no specific rules.

But how would they do it?

Most internet providers rely on cell towers and wireless towers, rather than fiber-optic cables that are more expensive to build and difficult to access. The telecommunications companies, who currently manage public Wi-Fi networks, build them with the help of wireless-beaming towers and cell sites. So increasing wireless capabilities in rural areas, as envisioned by the administration, would require the federal government to put money into the system. But to do so, federal regulators, Congress and the companies that would stand to profit, would need to come up with an effective plan.

Who would provide the money?

Advocates like Ellen Bloom, the director of Connect Maine: Rural Broadband and Localism, said she expects public-private partnerships. Just as private companies like Verizon, AT&T and Spectrum are aggressively expanding their existing service areas, the government should give other companies, especially small businesses, similar incentives to enter new markets. “If you can create community-controlled fiber optic networks, that is a solution to the problem. It would be a big boon to rural America,” Ms. Bloom said. She described the highway tunnels and other tunnels often neglected by the state of Maine’s highways as an example of how such a system works well.

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