Bridging The Digital Divide In Rural Areas
By Bill Thomson, vice president of marketing and product manager, DC BLOX.
In South Carolina, many residents are plagued by the unavailability of high-speed broadband connections. Despite 91.5% of the state’s residents having the ability to access wired connection speeds of up to 25 Mbps, 344,000 do not have a broadband connection that supports these speeds, while another 171,000 lack access completely.
To further this issue, many South Carolina residents have no choice when it comes to their broadband provider. In the state, 116 broadband providers operate yet more than half a million South Carolinians have only one option available, limiting competitive choices. The problem is much worse when you consider that even 25 Mbps, the speed that the FCC considers to be broadband, is too slow to support many of today’s applications.
Without reliable high-speed connectivity, healthcare facilities are unable to transport large diagnostic images, students are unable to access their education online, and businesses are unable to leverage cloud services for best-in-class solutions. These gaps place rural communities at a distinct disadvantage compared to metropolitan and suburban communities. As the public health crisis continues to evolve, these obstacles are amplified as remote work remains the norm for many companies and virtual learning is required for many students.
While access to the internet for educational and business purposes is essential, perhaps even more important is meeting the healthcare needs of rural communities. Across the country, there have been 138 closures of rural hospitals since 2010, including four in South Carolina. These hospitals play an essential role in the community, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, to deliver necessary medical services. As it becomes more difficult for rural Americans to access healthcare locally, many will turn to telehealth for routine care. Without access to high-speed broadband services, it makes it nearly impossible to access much-needed healthcare services.
Additionally, as the public health crisis continues to bring uncertainty to communities across the United States, a portion of South Carolina schools continue to operate under either fully remote or hybrid classroom environments. If students at these schools are unable to access course materials because they don’t have the same broadband access as their urban and suburban counterparts, they are at a severe disadvantage.
What is needed to address the challenges of rural communities is digital infrastructure. High-speed fiber-optic networks need to be laid within the rural communities, and then those local networks need to be connected to the Internet through local peering points and to other service providers to gain access to a variety of digital services.
Companies like DC BLOX are currently building digital infrastructure in regions that have been traditionally underserved. Cities like Greenville South Carolina and Birmingham Alabama are benefitting from state-of-the-art data centers and network exchanges that facilitate data connectivity for entities in their areas. For rural communities nearby, electric cooperatives are often taking on the responsibility to deploy broadband services. With robust digital infrastructure in the vicinity, cooperatives can partner with these providers to accelerate their broadband projects and improve the reliability of their services.
Through these initiatives, as well as the potential infrastructure investments from the federal government, bringing broadband access to underserved communities is accelerating. People will be able to access needed medical care and educational resources, and businesses will be able to grow. In the end, everyone benefits when these communities become connected and the digital divide is closed.