10/9 Call notes: Universal Broadband, Learnings from Rural and Native America

On Thursday, October 9th, GFEM’s Media Policy Working Group convened the second of two briefing calls on the opportunities for broadband policies in the U.S. that can ensure universality, affordability, equity, and truly high-speed Internet usage.  This call built on the frameworks presented in our initial briefing in September, with a focus on the opportunities in rural America and on Native lands.

We wish to thank our co-sponsors of this call, Native Americans in Philanthropy and the National Rural Funders Collaborative, as well as Helen Brunner and the Media Democracy Fund for helping shape today's program and for supporting grantees in this area of advocacy.

Please also visit GFEM's dedicated page, Broadband Resources and Next Steps for Funders.

 "Universal Broadband: Learnings from Rural and Native America" (Pt. 2 of 2)
GFEM's Media Policy Working Group Briefing Call, 10/9/08 

INTRO: Jeff Perlstein, GFEM's Media Policy Working Group

High-speed Internet connections, known as broadband, are part of today’s critical infrastructure for the well-being of our diverse communities. As highlighted on our previous call, a robust Internet connection enables participation in telemedicine programs, economic development opportunities, distance learning, civic engagement, cultural access and much more.  

But the reality is that a digital divide persists both within the United States and abroad.  This divide is all the more pronounced when comparing urban and rural populations in the United States.

On today's call we'll hear from three experts about the unique challenges and innovations in rural and Native America, and what lessons can be learned to help us all achieve the goal of affordable, universal broadband service.

Our presenters for today's briefing are:

Without further ado, Tim, please start us off.

1. "Why Rural Matters" - Tim Marema, Center for Rural Strategies

There are many varying ways to define rural America, from "I know it when I see it" to strict social scientific formulas.  The U.S. Office of Management and Budget indirectly defines rural by instead describing “metropolitan”: counties with cities of 50,000 people and up, or counties where a quarter of the workforce commutes to a metro county.  Under this definition, rural America includes:

  • 51 million residents, about 20% of the U.S. population
  • Two thirds of U.S. counties
  • 80% of the land area of the U.S.

However, it must be noted that this method of definition is less than perfect. For example, it considers the Grand Canyon as “metropolitan.”

a) Demographics of Rural America:

  • Older, poorer, less educated, less healthy
  • Joblessness slightly higher - 5 % rural  v. 4.5 % metro 
  • 4 year degree lower - 17 % rural v. 29% metro
  • High school dropout rates higher – 19% rural v. 15% metro
  • Poorer - 195 of the 200 poorest counties are rural

Contrary to popular belief, people of color comprise a significant percentage of our rural populations, and these numbers are growing. There are a growing number of rural counties where people of color constitute a majority of the population.

  • People of color - 17% rural v. 25% metro
  • Approximately half of all Native Americans live in rural areas
  • 15% of African-Americans live in rural
  • 9% of Hispanics live in rural
  • 5% of Asian/Asian-Americans live in rural

b) Economics of Rural America:

Despite persistent popular notions, less than 2 percent of the rural population today earn their primary living from farming. Economically, rural areas are predominantly focused on service and manufacturing, like the rest of the nation.

c) Electoral Politics and Rural America:

Rural voters will play a prominent role in this election, in part because we are proportionally overrepresented in the Electoral College. Traditionally, rural voters have been split between the GOP and Dems. However, since 2000, rural America has increasingly been a GOP stronghold.

The GOP knows it must get a big lead in rural to make up for their urban losses, estimated at 15 points or so. In 2004, Kerry lost rural overall by 20 points – one factor that tipped the election.

More specifically, there is the example of Ohio, 2004. Bush won the presidency because of Ohio, and Bush won Ohio because of rural turnout. In metropolitan Ohio, Bush LOST to Kerry by about 90,000 votes. In rural Ohio, Bush scored a lead of more than 200,000 votes. The result was that Bush won Ohio and thus the electoral votes needed to claim the presidency.

In spite of this reality, both parties have largely ignored rural America – the GOP takes it for granted and the Dems write it off.

d) What rural areas have in common with each other and Tribal lands:          

Geography is a key asset  - minerals, timber, water, recreational lands, etc. "Market forces" work very differently here. Rural is defined in some ways as the "land beyond the market," so market-driven policy solutions are often problematic from the outset.           

Why? We have considerably less population density, so there can be great difficulties getting to scale in services - schools, transportation, utilities, broadband, etc.

e) Rural Broadband, Policy Opportunities and the Universal Service Fund:

The federal government’s studies and figures on rural broadband access and usage are hopelessly inexact. There is federal legislation awaiting the President's signature that would require a new, improved method for determining the rate of broadband deployment.

The latest Pew Center study found that 41% of rural homes have broadband access, versus 57% of metro homes. Another way of looking at it: while about 20% of the U.S. population is rural, we constitute 30% of the nation’s dialup users and only 13% percent of broadband users.

That being said, there is terrific innovation taking place in rural areas to respond to this market failure. We will hear more about some of these successes from the other presenters.

Public policies need to scale up to address these gaps. When rural communities succeed, the nation at large benefits.

One policy advance that could be helpful is to re-imagine the Universal Service Fund (USF).  Getting services to rural areas is not a new problem. The New Deal created the legacy of regional “co-ops”, or cooperatives, to expand electrical service beyond the urban markets. 

The Universal Service Fund was another mechanism from the New Deal that succeeded in expanding telephone service to rural areas by redirecting some revenue from metro markets to outlying areas where “return on investment” is lower. Advocates are coalescing around policy proposals to update this model for the digital age and create significant funding for rural broadband infrastructure from metro revenue streams.

In this election year, advocates have succeeded in making broadband infrastructure and access part of the policy debates. For a comparison of the candidate's rural broadband policy approaches, please visit our coverage at The Daily Yonder and GFEM.org.

2. "Rural Innovation to Address Failed 'Market' Models; Emerging Policy Opportunities"
By Wally Bowen, Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN)

In 1995, we founded the Mountain Area Information Network as a nonprofit Internet service provider and community network based in Asheville, N.C. This was at a time when many residents and businesses here in the mountains of North Carolina had to call long-distance to access the Internet.   

We solved this problem by placing servers in public libraries or community colleges in each of 14 counties – an area roughly the size of Vermont.  We also provided the first public Internet access at approximately 35 libraries and community centers throughout the region.

This nonprofit Internet infrastructure has empowered a wide range of community self-help efforts over the last 12 years, including:

  • In 1998, we brought affordable and plentiful bandwidth to a community college computer lab, which was trying to serve 12 computers with a single phone line --  because they couldn't pay the telephone company's exorbitant T-1 broadband rate. 
  • In 2003, we brought affordable and plentiful bandwidth to a remote 911 Emergency Public-Safety Center because the state government connection provisioned from Raleigh -- 300 miles away -- was too slow and too expensive.
  • Ten years ago, we helped to envision and promote and a nonprofit, regional fiber broadband network that exists today and has created a more competitive marketplace for wholesale bandwidth for private-sector industry, as well as public-sector schools and local government agencies.

a) Persistent Gaps Despite the Innovation:

Despite these efforts, however, huge swaths of our mountain region today have no access to broadband Internet.  This past July, we surveyed more than 5,000 residents who had contacted us in search of affordable broadband access.  We asked them to give us their stories about "life without broadband."  We recently put a selection of these stories online.  Many are disturbing.

But perhaps more disturbing is the number of rural citizens who have made significant progress in their lives because of the Internet - starting home based businesses, advancing their education and careers, telecommuting for work – and now find themselves at risk of losing this progress because so many of today's Web applications require a robust broadband connection.   

We heard from senior citizens who no longer can access their health insurance or prescription drug information online.  An 82-year old widow in Marble, N.C lives alone and survives on Social Security, and occasionally selling items on e-Bay.  But paying her bills online and making a little extra money on e-Bay are becoming increasingly difficult via dial-up.

These folks have to leave their dial-up connections on all night just to complete software downloads in order to upgrade their computers.  And that's if they're lucky and their connection is not dropped before the download is completed.  

One person described the poor quality of rural phone lines in McDowell County, where their dial-up Internet service goes out when it rains. We heard stories from folks who routinely drive 40, 50 or 60 miles roundtrip to sit outside a restaurant or library to download big files.   I could go on and on.

b) Cause for Hope, Making Use of Vacant TV Spectrum or "White Spaces":

One of the incredible opportunities we face today in rural America is the ability to turn the page on absentee-owned telecommunications networks.  For at least the last three decades, most of our rural communities have suffered under the impersonal and remote management of absentee-owners of rural telecom facilities.  The big carriers' business models just do not work in much of rural America.  

But here's the good news:  With advances in today's digital technologies, wireless broadband networks can be built at much lower costs than conventional landline facilities.  We know this firsthand because we have offered broadband wireless Internet access since 2003 in four mountain counties, including mostly rural Buncombe County, which includes the more urban and densely populated city of Asheville.

The key piece that is missing is access to quality spectrum – or airwaves - for our wireless service.  We currently use the same unlicensed spectrum as Wi-Fi Internet signals, as well as baby monitors, garage-door openers and microwave ovens.

But this unlicensed spectrum is only a small sliver of our publicly-owned airwaves, and radio engineers call it the “junk” bands because of its relatively poor signal quality.  

The current unlicensed spectrum does not penetrate buildings and is relatively short-range. That's why 6 out of 10 residents and businesses who want our wireless broadband service can't get it.

So this is why we need access to the vacant TV channels which will become available next February when TV goes to digital signals.  These channels are vacant because advances in digital TV broadcasting enable more efficient use of spectrum.  Digital TV broadcasters can soon do more with less.  The channels they have been allocated but will not use are what we call the “white spaces.”   

In some rural areas, like here in the mountains of North Carolina, as much as 70% of the TV broadcasters' spectrum allocation will be vacant white spaces.

This is the good stuff!  It's the really powerful, high-quality spectrum that penetrates buildings and heavy foliage and can do so from distances of 30 miles or more –  while delivering much higher broadband speeds than today's unlicensed spectrum.  And because the “white spaces” spectrum is so superior to the current “junk bands,” network engineers and experts at the New America Foundation estimate that wireless network buildout costs could be reduced as much as 50-75 percent.  

c) Prospects and Recommendations for Increasing Rural Broadband:

The Federal Communication Commission is set to issue a white spaces rulemaking in early November, which includes allowing mobile devices on this spectrum. This means that rural residents would soon have the same advantages of Blackberry and iPhone devices that urban residents now take for granted.  But this is just the tip of the iceberg.   

We will no doubt see a new generation of mobile devices and broadband platforms, such as telemedicine applications that will be especially useful for medical emergencies in rural areas; remote-sensing of critical infrastructure such as bridges, roads and tunnels; not to mention all kinds of business and civic engagement applications.

But here's the most exciting thing: with broadband white spaces technologies, we can – for the first time in our lifetimes – return control of rural telecommunications infrastructure to the people who live and work in these communities.   

This has huge economic, social, political and cultural implications.  In fact, we're talking about nothing less than an economic and cultural renaissance in rural America.  

So how do we make this happen?  We need a policy framework that allows greater public access to use of the unlicensed white spaces.  Just as important, there will need to be stronger funding mechanisms for such projects, and that's where reform of the Universal Service Fund (USF) comes in.   

A growing bi-partisan consensus is growing around (a) expanding the pool of money in the USF and (b) expanding the scope of the project for the digital age - from analog phone buildout in underserved areas to broadband Internet buildout to these populations.

But in order to ensure the kind of local ownership I have described, we need to also broaden the USF eligibility requirements to ensure that nonprofits, local governments, and rural cooperatives can obtain meaningful funding to build community-based broadband networks.

I think I will end it there, and I look forward to any questions.

3. "Indian Country’s Broadband Realities, Innovation, and Opportunities" 

By Geoffrey Blackwell, Native Public Media, National Federation of Community Broadcasters

a) Overview of Telecommunications Landscape in Indian Country:

There are more than 563 federally recognized Tribal entities in the U.S.  We are spread throughout the nation and inhabit the most remote regions. By any measure, the residents of Tribal lands nationwide suffer from the worst lack of communications service and connectivity in the United States.

Communications in the 21st century is a necessary and basic utility. Robust multiple platform communications systems are absolutely essential to the ability of Tribal communities and their residents to create strong and lasting local economies, and to protect the health, safety and welfare of their peoples in these at risk communities.

Several challenges exist to deploying telecommunications and broadcast services in Indian Country:

  • Rural and often very remote locations
  • Difficult geographic terrain
  • Demographically spread out communities
  • Cyclically impoverished and socially disadvantaged communities
  • Each Tribe has its own challenging geopolitical history and relationship with national, state and local governments, business and neighborhood communities

Market-based "competition" often does not work in Indian Country as it does in urban or suburban America.  Often Tribes are forced to become their own “carriers of last resort” providing the critical communications solutions when no other commercial entity can stomach the business plan for a rural, economically distressed community.  

Too often challenges are exacerbated in Tribal communities when the communications laws and policies envision a Wall Street or K Street business plan, predicated on goals and prerogatives that belie a lack of understanding of the true nature and needs of Tribal communities.

b) Statistics: The state of communications infrastructure in Indian Country

Definition: Indian Country is considered all those various types of locations with various types of land tenure which American Indians and Alaska Natives, their Tribes, Villages, and communities inhabit.

Telephone Service on Tribal Lands: (from FCC analysis of Census data)

  • 1990 Census:  47%
  • 2000 Census:  68%
  • 2000 Census:  98% Nationwide

Broadcast:  (from Native Public Media)

  • 33 Native public radio stations in 12 states
  • 20 Tribal construction permits were granted by the FCC out of 58 applications during the 2007 application period for new licenses

Broadband:  (Anecdotal information only)

  • 5% - 8% Penetration Rate in Indian Country
  • Very skeptical about this number, plus not known at what Internet speed 

These statistics illustrate the extreme nature of the lack of communications deployment in Indian Country.  As connectivity is a touchstone to so many aspects of community daily life, it is a critical need in Indian Country to achieve meaningful communications systems development.

Still there is great opportunity for the future.  With the convergence of technologies, and the advent of new platforms, there is much Tribes can do beyond have a radio station to build the media capacity of their communities.

Tribes are one of the three sovereign entities in the U.S.  Tribal sovereignty and self- determination is a critical component to the health and future of Tribal communities.  History has demonstrated that it is only through our own determined efforts that our communities and peoples will have bright futures.  

Tribal sovereign jurisdiction is often misunderstood in the telecom context as being a barrier.  The FCC and the Congress have recognized the role that Tribal governments play in determining their own communications destiny, and those communications providers that have taken the time to work with Tribal nations and their communities have learned how Tribal sovereignty and self-determination can be an asset to development and business opportunities.

c) Indian Country’s Similarities with Rural America:

Indian Country is an “indicator species” of rural America, a canary in the coal mine for governmental actions.  There are many commonalities.

Rural America and Native communities can find much common ground both in the regulatory and legislative decision-making world and on the ground in their respective regions of the country.

Many successful and interesting broadband projects occurring in Indian Country serve not only the unique important needs of Tribal communities, but also benefit from “demand aggregation” approaches.

d) Innovative and Compelling Models Taking Place in Indian Country:

  • Coeur d’Alene Tribe - Through a USDA grant the tribe established a reservation-wide wireless system in unregulated spectrum, providing variety of services to community and residents
  • The Tribal Digital Village - A wireless system connecting several Tribes in San Diego County, using a demand aggregation model. Several towers and repeaters system provide a virtual environment for community services.
  • Balsam West Fiber Net - The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians came together with the local chapter of NC State University, nearby non-Tribal towns, and nearby local businesses to aggregate demand and establish a robust fiber network solution.
  • Tribally Owned and Operated Telephone Company’s - The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Gila River Indian Community, Mescalero Apache, the Hopi Tribe, and several others have established their own telecommunications entities, providing phone service and beyond.  They are different from other rural or regional telco's in that they are part of their Tribes, understand Tribal sovereignty, and are in tune with the needs of their communities.  For example, the Cheyenne River Telephone Authority delivers heating oil in winter and works with families when their telephone dollar is limited in Winter months by heating oil costs. They tend to be more responsive to their communities’ needs, as exemplified by the various types of telecom services they offer.  Certain ones have wireless solutions, cable TV, DSL, and other unique solutions, up to and including fiber.  Some provide services both on and off the reservation.

Each of these models represents an investment in a solution otherwise not attainable by the Tribes.  These are communications entities that should be recognized for their unique solutions for their at-risk communities.

e) Policy Suggestions and Next Steps for Funders

  • Universal Service Fund - Examine existing USF programs for effectiveness and expand the USF from telephone service to include broadband connectivity purposes: Rural Health Care, Low-Income Program, Schools and Libraries Program, High Cost Program.
  • Better Statistics, Metrics, Data – Support efforts toward stronger statistical metrics, both in federal government data collection (US Census) and in non-governmental sectors.


Jeff Perlstein, GFEM's Media Policy Working GroupThank you Geoffrey, Tim, and Wally for a very rich discussion - and thank you to everyone who called in to join us today.

Please visit Broadband Resources and Next Steps for Funders, for additional information on this topic.

Please contact me, Jeff, to further discuss this topic and opportunities for grantmaking in this area.

Thank you!

Jeff Perlstein, Program Director, Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media