Broadband access remains a major issue for rural customers

In discussions about the need for increased broadband access for rural Hoosiers, it is sometimes suggested that the easiest way for customers to avoid the problem is to use wireless technology.

Not true, said Shelby Swain, INFB associate policy advisor, state government relations.

For one thing, many rural residents don’t have access to high-speed wireless connections. According to a 2016 study by the Federal Communications Commission, 39 percent of rural Americans (23 million people) don’t have access to what the FCC considers to be “high-speed internet.” In contrast, only 4 percent of urban Americans lack such access.

Even where rural residents do have access, that doesn’t mean they are going to keep it. Verizon Wireless has announced its intention to drop customers in rural stretches of the Greater Lafayette area, Swain said.

A total of 8,500 rural customers in 13 states including Indiana (Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah and Wisconsin) are affected by the carrier’s decision.

The reason cited by the company, according to The Lafayette Journal & Courier, is that the customers, all of whom are on the carrier's highly touted unlimited-data plans, are using too much data on a partner’s network and costing Verizon money. The dropped customers include some who live in Delphi, Logansport and surrounding areas where Verizon allows customers to roam on towers operated by S&R Communications, the Journal & Courier article said.

Customers were notified in mid-September and were given only until Oct. 17 to find a new carrier. However, Swain said, Verizon has “retreated somewhat” from that stance and is now giving customers more time to find a new plan.

The Indiana General Assembly’s Interim Study Committee on Energy, Utilities & Telecommunications held a meeting on Sept. 14 to discuss rural broadband.

“Everyone agrees there is a problem regarding broadband access for citizens in rural areas, but there is still not a clear path forward,” Swain said. The main roadblock is finding the financial subsidy needed to expand broadband to less densely populated areas.

There are some positive developments, Swain said, noting that AT&T has launched a wireless internet service plan specifically targeted toward rural customers. However, at 10 megabits per second download speed, it’s not terribly fast.

For comparison purposes, 1 Mbps download speed is fine for general web surfing, email and social media use, according to the FCC’s “Broadband Speed Guide.” But for students or telecommuters, 5-25 Mbps is recommended; for teleconferencing, the recommendation is 6 Mbps; 10 Mbps is recommended for downloading large files; and streaming video ranges widely from 3-4 Mbps for standard video to 25 Mbps for ultra high-definition video.

The AT&T plan “is a step forward if you can afford it,” Swain said, “but it doesn’t solve the problem. It doesn’t provide parity, or anything close to it, for rural customers.”

(See companion article: Indiana lags behind most of its neighbors, according to FCC.)