Dan O’Shea over at FierceTelecom has some great commentary on expectations and realities for rural broadband. One of his main points is that rural communities and the PUCs that look after them often want broadband but they want it within the context of a Bell type company that no longer exists. We really need to get past this and see rural communication infrastructure in a modern context.
Suppose we were to redesign rural telecom infrastructure from the ground up, what would it look like? In order to be competitively priced, it needs to scale with distance and that just doesn’t work when you have to run copper or even fiber to every home. That’s why our society has had to subsidize rural communications all this time, and if we try to apply urban and suburban fiber solutions to the countryside then one way or another we are going to have to subsidize it all over again.
Mixing in technologies like WiMAX seem to make things more even because spectrum gets cheaper as population density gets smaller, but then the other problem looms. The money is always, always going to be better in the cities and suburbs. You have to cover so much rural territory to make the same amount of money as you can in more populated areas that the money will always flow to the latter first. Efforts to interest telecom giants in this are almost certainly fruitless.
So you get two kinds of companies involved in these things: 1) RLECs who are currently running their copper as a cash machine, many of whom see doing anything else as unnecessarily risky and may not even have the expertise available to build a modern infrastructure, and 2) locally based startups who know the modern infrastructure but lack the financial resources and the safe relationship with the consumers that a Bell type company generally has.
To sweeten the pot, we now have the government waving money in the air – free money if you don’t find network neutrality constraining. So far it has not been enough to get attention from the larger players except in the ‘middle mile’, leaving the development of the next generation of rural infrastructure largely up to local interests. On the one hand, that means efforts will be piecemeal. But on the other hand, it represents a huge opportunity for the little guy that really figures out how to do it right.
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