COVID-19 Highlights Lack of High-Speed Internet in Rural Areas

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While broadband internet service is alive and well in many cities, America’s sparsely populated rural areas generally have fewer dependable broadband providers. According to the latest figures from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), more than 20 million Americans still lack access to meaningful broadband service.

Fiber-optic internet access, at up to $30,000 per buried mile in rural areas, is just tougher to build. But it’s still the gold standard for today and the future.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus and the incidence of COVID-19 make rural broadband’s three primary applications even more important:

  • Working remotely, when possible
  • Keeping kids current in school – Distance learning
  • Getting access to healthcare while sheltered in place – Telehealth

Boosting rural broadband availability has become even more crucial as the current pandemic inevitably makes its way to small towns and areas too rural to be regarded as towns. The push for new legislation to help provide internet to those who need it is more essential than ever.

The recently passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) added $100 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) ReConnect rural broadband grant and loan program. This money will be invested in qualified 100 percent grant projects between $25 million and $50 million. As of late April, the USDA was reviewing 11 previously submitted projects ready for a second chance to begin deployment this year. 

The USDA’s Rural Development group was provided an additional $25 million in the CARES Act specifically for the Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant program. The USDA will make a separate announcement in the coming weeks when these funds are available. Electronic applications are due no later than July 13, 2020. 

The FCC continues its determination to dispense more than $20 billion over 10 years for broadband buildout in the most rural areas through its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. A reverse auction for the first $16 billion is scheduled for the fourth quarter of the year, with a second round of $4 billion to follow. While details and the schedule aren’t yet final, many providers are hard at work building business cases that will bring long-overdue broadband to areas of low population density.

BKD is also working with companies on qualifying for new rounds of state broadband grant programs. Throughout the Midwest and elsewhere, state commissions began programs before the COVID-19 outbreak that added millions to deployments. Now with competing demands at state and federal levels, it will take great resolve to continue these programs. 

But with an estimated 20 million Americans still facing limited or no access to broadband for work and school or video access to their doctors, there’s much more work ahead. Look to BKD for industry updates throughout the year. 

As with most topics related to COVID-19, changes are being made rapidly. Please note that this information is current as of the date of publication. For more information, reach out to your BKD Trusted Advisor or submit the Contact Us form below.

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