Broadband in rural America

Through our work with innovative small town leaders across the country, we’ve seen firsthand that delivering high-speed broadband to rural America is entirely possible.

Nineteen of the 20 communities in CORI’s Rural Innovation Network have reliable access to high-speed broadband, and 11 have (or are in the process of building) world class gigabit-speed fiber. These communities are shining examples of the ways rural America can dismantle the narrative that high-speed internet just can’t happen in rural areas.

In the current pandemic, the fatalistic view that future proof broadband can’t be built in small towns is actually dangerous. As COVID-19 has shown, the digital divide is putting rural lives at risk, keeping rural students from learning, and will drive mass layoffs of rural workers. As we have advocated, now is the time to close the broadband gap, once and for all.

Fortunately, there is momentum for solutions at the scale that solving this problem requires. But to make sure we turn this momentum into real progress for America’s small towns, we must show that rural broadband can be done — and in more ways than one. To illustrate this point, we created a chart showing the different ways our 11 communities have built (or are building) gigabit-speed fiber to the home networks.

*Asterisks denote networks that are in the process of being built. 

These 11 communities show that there’s a wide array of models a community can employ to build fiber networks. The chart above suggests a few important patterns:

Some communities have used municipal infrastructure to create affordable new networks.

Wilson, North Carolina, is a pioneer in this model, having built fiber through the municipal Greenlight Community Broadband back in 2007. While existing providers fought tooth and nail to thwart Greenlight, Wilson prevailed, and has the network today to prove it.

Independence, Oregon, followed a similar path, in 2007 partnering with the neighboring city of Monmouth to build multi-city broadband infrastructure through MINET, eventually expanding to a gigabit fiber network.

And today, Traverse City, Michigan, is continuing the trend, with its municipal electric company currently in the process of constructing a fiber network.

In other communities, small independent networks were launched to address broadband gaps they saw on the ground.

In Emporia, Kansas, a group of local investors built an all-fiber network through ValuNet. Their engineers developed new cable designs to allow efficient “drops” that bring fiber from the pole to the home — a shining example of local innovation.

In Oskaloosa, Iowa, a local lighting company created its own fiber network to invest in the future of the places it served, and is now expanding to Grinnell. And in 1997, Hiawatha Broadband Communications started building fiber in southern Minnesota towns, now including Red Wing, while always maintaining a commitment to local service.

Other communities emulated the spirit of the Rural Electrification Act, with co-ops building new fiber networks.

Based in Girard, Kansas, Craw-Kan Telephone Cooperative formed in 1954, with 14 subscribers. Now it has grown its network to include multiple towns, and brought fiber to the home in Pittsburg in 2019.

In Cedar City, Utah, South Central Communications listened to residents who expressed a desire for faster internet, and they now are building a network to deliver custom fiber solutions.

There is also precedent for federal stimulus allowing telecoms to build new fiber. Based in Springfield, Vermont, family-owned Vermont Telephone Company received federal stimulus funding through the Rural Utilities Service, in part to provide fiber to the home in their core region. Springfield now has fiber to every home and most of the rest of their phone service territory — illustrating that a stimulus package today could spur new rural fiber projects.

Even major telecom players have shown that they can provide fiber outside urban markets.

CenturyLink delivered fiber to the home in Platteville, Wisconsin, in 2015.  And recently, Shentel, a publicly-traded telecom and an affiliate of Sprint, launched Glo Fiber, with a focus on rural communities in Virginia, including Staunton.

Of course, these 11 communities represent just a small slice of the ways rural communities can create successful fiber networks. EC Fiber for example, offers another promising model, as they pioneered the use of “Communications Union Districts” to bring fiber to a consortium of municipalities in Vermont — some as small as 900 people — using both local investors and non-recourse municipal bonds. And looking across the country, our analysis found that more than 2,500 rural towns have access to fiber — and we’d bet there’s a wide diversity in how they got it done.

With all these examples in mind, what we need to remember is this: In the 21st century, we can bring high speed internet to any place in America. The best path forward might look different depending on the community and state. But there should be no doubt that it’s possible. Now is the moment to close our digital divide once and for all.

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Interested in bringing fiber to the home in your region? With our partners CTC Technology and Energy and ValleyNet, we’re developing actionable feasibility studies, engineering plans, and financial models to deploy fiber for 6 towns and regions across the country. To learn more, visit our broadband page.