There is an article currently posted on slashdot.org asking if the government should step in to fix slow internet access.
… Ahem. Really?
The government (via the FCC) is already subsidizing ILECs (Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers, AT&T, CenturyLink, etc) and cell providers (Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, ACS, etc.), and has been for decades. They, in effect, have monopolies in their areas when it comes to getting federal funds. These are obviously massive companies with huge staffs that are already outfitted to lay backbone fiber, connect last mile access circuits, and deal with support calls. Yet when given money by the federal government to provide last mile access to more rural subscribers, it basically never happens. Why? Two reasons: weak federal stipulations tied to receiving the funds, and the fact that they are publicly traded companies.
Providing backbone/backhaul and last mile connections to more rural areas is expensive and has a very slow ROI, often spanning into decades (there’s a lot of inefficiencies in their install methods, though it is normally quality work for the backbone). AT&T’s shareholders wouldn’t be very happy if they suddenly “bucked tradition” and massively increased CAPEX due to rural buildouts.
So where does that leave us?
The best solution in my eyes is with small, locally owned, fixed wireless ISPs (WISPs) and fiber providers. Through self funding, USDA matching grants, angel investors, or VCs, these regional outfits can connect thousands of subscribers with very little cash. How little? If you went through the couch cushions in the office of AT&T’s lobbyists, you could probably fund last mile access to several thousand homes, businesses, medical clinics, and schools.
How do I know this? Because I’ve been directly involved in several outfits like this: SPITwSPOTS (a fixed wireless ISP in Alaska), and NewDawn Fiber (a 1Gbps GPON fiber-to-the-home outfit in Missouri). I’ve consulted with many more, but these two I was directly involved with in day to day operations.
I’ve seen first hand what providing bandwidth to rural communities to can do: it empowers them. It brings them into the fold of the global economy and allows them to market their goods and services anywhere in the world without having to leave and move to a larger area. It also allows them to access education resources and connects them to friends and family via social media, along with many other things.
The people running these regional ISPs don’t have a lot of cash, but they do have ingenuity, tenacity, customer service skills, and ties to the local community. They are the lifeblood of digital transformation to rural America and places all over the world.
Simply providing those local companies with even a tiny amount of funding would drastically accelerate the rate at which they could connect new subscribers and offer new services and high capacities, and it can also open up new positions to hire local people. Also, leveling the regulatory playing field in ways that foster a competitive market for small companies to compete against the “big guys” also needs to be a part of this strategy.
If you want to connect a lot of these communities the solution isn’t throwing more money at companies who have already received billions and yet refuse to connect areas, it’s by stimulating these regional ISPs who have ties to the areas they are already providing service in.