According to federal statistics, nearly 23 million rural Americans lack access to high-speed internet. This lack of broadband service has remained stubbornly high for years, even as urban and suburban areas enjoy the benefits of fiber optic and other broadband deployment.
But increasingly, it looks as though this large problem may have a very small solution.
Recently, Brendan Carr of the Federal Communications Commission announced a radically improved federal process to accelerate deployment of a new and blazing-fast wireless service called 5G. This 5G service represents more than just a new and better option for internet access. It is the best hope so far for rural communities that want broadband access on par with urban areas.
5G broadband relies on what are known as “small-cell” wireless transmitters. Smaller than a mini-fridge, these small cells operate 100 times faster than current wireless systems — imagine downloading a 4K-resolution movie in seconds.
Under the plan that Carr announced, cellular transmitters providing 5G service will not need to go through outdated and expensive federal approvals based on two laws: the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
Environmental and landmark protections are certainly worthy goals, but in practice, these reviews have evolved into an overbroad process that tied down rural broadband improvement in red tape. As a result, rural costs rose, and residents had to accept sub-par internet service or none at all.
Under the new policy, “small-cell” 5G towers no longer need these federal approvals because of their modest size and minimal environmental impact. While the benefits will take root everywhere, the greatest impact is likely to be in areas that lack quality internet service.
It is an American travesty that more than 20 percent of rural K-12 students do not have adequate service at school. For many rural communities, even when high-speed internet is accessible, costs are absurdly high — as much as 300 percent higher than comparable suburban service.
The underlying reasons are clear. Expanding internet service in rural communities involves huge costs, and outdated federal approvals like those called for in those two laws have historically made this process even more expensive.
For farming and ranching communities, the implications of Carr’s reform are huge. Evidence shows that improving rural broadband access brings more opportunity and employment. Like other industries, farming and ranching become more profitable and environmentally sustainable through improvements from high-speed internet access.
A new type of farming called “alternate wetting and drying” uses wireless sensors to monitor water levels in rice paddies. Experiments have shown this system can significantly cut water usage and greenhouse emissions—with anecdotal evidence from farmers showing 50 percent reductions — while increasing rice yields.
Beyond farming and ranching, faster wireless access allows rural communities to broaden their economy and build jobs in everything from services to management.
New 5G service also offers a path forward for small towns to address their health care problems. This is especially pressing, since by 2020, the country faces the prospect of having 45,000 fewer doctors. Wireless service means residents needing heart, blood pressure or kidney dialysis monitoring could access health care services without long drives to a doctor’s office.
Our farming and ranching communities urgently need a better and more affordable solution, and new wireless systems hold that promise.
Carr’s announcement is more than just an urgently needed improvement of old federal rules that have held back the rural internet for years; it is a gateway for our communities to see the kind of fast, affordable service that others have had for years.
Betsy Huber is the president of National Grange and a member of the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee.
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