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Rural communities across US lack quality internet access; infrastructure bill could help

Rural communities across America lack quality internet access, the infrastructure bill could help
Posted at 1:09 PM, Sep 24, 2021

For a lot of people, internet access is more of a need.

At Vision Net in Great Falls, Montana, they are connecting small internet providers in the state to the rest of the world.

“We’re behind the scenes,” said Gary Evans, the Operations Manager at Vision Net. “Most of them in Montana go through us to get out to the world.”

Vision Net is a network operations center, or middle mile carrier.

“We will route their traffic up through here, across their network, where it needs to go,” Evans said.

It all happens inside a data center on top of a hill outside of town.

“It used to be just a fun thing to have at home, and now it’s a critical service,” Evans said. “911 is riding over our network for a good portion of the state. We carry the 911 traffic, one of the things we do behind the scenes. So, if our network goes down, a lot of people couldn't call 911.”

Montana is currently one of the worst states for internet connectivity.

“There's a lot of dirt between light bulbs in Montana. We’re just one little town with long streets,” said Geoff Feiss, the General Manager of the Montana Telecommunications Association. “By some standards, we are 51st in the nation in broadband accessibility to consumers in the state. How do you get to be 51? You add D.C. in there.”

The association represents locally owned service providers in the state.

“We’re a big state, not a lot of consumers. It’s very hard to serve. It’s just an expensive place to serve,” Feiss said. “New Jersey, or Delaware, or Connecticut, these are states that can fit in a couple counties in Montana with millions of consumers, and the cost of providing services, much lower.”

The infrastructure bill being considered by the federal government could help this town and other rural communities.

“It would provide $42.5 billion for broadband infrastructure investment,” Feiss said.

It’s not just the lack of access. In some areas, it’s more the cost or quality.

“Anybody that's five miles outside Cascade, our options are extremely limited,” said Nichole Pieper, the junior high and high school principal at Cascade Public Schools.

The school serves 300 students from kindergarten to 12th grade. They open the school to families and students who need to use the internet because just outside of town, Pieper says connection can be hit or miss.

“We’re only seven miles out of town and we struggle with finding options. I probably contacted five-plus providers, and every single one of them told me, 'Sorry, we don’t have internet available to your address at this time,'” she explained.

She currently has internet that’s slow and doesn’t work well during peak hours. Christopher Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance said this is common for residents in rural areas.

“There's a lot of places that look, in the national database, like they have service but that network just doesn't work very often,” Mitchell said.

A report from 2012 completed by the Federal Communications Commission found that 6% of the population still lacks access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds. In rural areas, nearly 25% of the population lacks access to this service.

Feiss and Evans hope they can help bring more access and better connection to people who need it, with fiber being the desired option.

“It’s almost mind-boggling what you can fit across two of these fibers,” Evans said.

“Fiber optics is the Cadillac, the gold standard of broadband technology,” Feiss said. “It’s a reliable medium and it happens to be able to deliver as much bandwidth as you can consume.”

Pieper hopes that could be an option for her home in the future.

“We’ve got a fiber wire that goes right to the end of our driveway and we can't get high-speed internet,” she said.

It’s a service many of us take for granted.

“Having internet is just as critical as having power,” Pieper said.