Beyond Fiber: Addressing the Rural Internet Challenge

Challenging the Status Quo – An Urgent Call for a Balanced Approach to Rural Connectivity.

Dear Colleagues and Government Officials,

I am writing to you as a representative of Evergreen Technology Solutions and a community member deeply committed to bridging the digital divide that separates rural America from the connected world. We are at a critical juncture in the evolution of rural connectivity, where the decisions we make today will impact the fabric of our society for years to come.

For too long, the narrative around rural internet connectivity has been dominated by the promise of fiber - a promise that, despite its best intentions, has yet to materialize into the anticipated widespread coverage. The stark reality is that even the initial infrastructure investment for rural fiber, especially in the context of the vast, sparsely populated landscapes of rural America, is not just prohibitively expensive, it is impractical. The high cost of laying single-mode fiber, which can range from $5,000 to $10,000 per kilometer, coupled with the significant distance between rural homes, pushes the potential return on investment on that infrastructure back by decades. That is even before the cost to maintain such a sprawling and sparsely populated infrastructure is considered.

The current grant systems have inadvertently reinforced this cycle of unfulfilled promises. By mandating a fiber-first approach, we have sidelined innovative, cost-effective solutions and inadvertently fostered an industry landscape with a recurring pattern where the same companies receive grants repeatedly without delivering on their commitments. This has led to a troubling discrepancy in our national connectivity maps, where areas are marked as currently being served by an ISP when, in reality, they remain disconnected, creating a barrier for other companies willing and able to provide actual service.

It is crucial to address the prevailing attitudes that have taken root in the broadband industry. These sentiments, borne out of past failures, suggest that implementing sustainable rural broadband is an insurmountable task that only becomes feasible by leveraging “economies of scale” and continuing to return to the companies that have been the cause of the current state of affairs time and time again or by setting up networks that rely on perpetual government subsidies to keep the lights on. Such a defeatist perspective has gained traction, not because it reflects the true potential of rural connectivity, but because of the restrictive policies and daunting requirements currently in place. These barriers, often stemming from a fiber-centric approach, have morphed into towering hurdles, stifling innovation and discouraging forward-progress in the face of seemingly impossible odds.

The reality, however, is more nuanced and hopeful. In response to decades of unfulfilled promises and the absence of effective broadband service, many rural communities are no longer waiting for federal grants and subsidies to materialize into connectivity. Instead, they are taking matters into their own hands and building networks from the ground up without reliance on the very public funding that, ostensibly, should have been used to build those very networks. These community-driven initiatives demonstrate remarkable resilience and innovation, creating viable connectivity solutions tailored to their unique needs.

Imagine the scale of progress that could be achieved if we redirected our investments and support to these grassroots innovators and community-led companies and their bottom-up approach to building networks for their communities rather than continuing to fund entities that have repeatedly failed to deliver. By investing in these local endeavors, we not only empower rural communities but also foster a fertile ground for practical, sustainable solutions that could revolutionize rural connectivity. This is a call to pivot our focus and resources, to champion the underdogs who are proving that rural broadband is not only possible but can thrive with the right support and policy environment.

Continuing from this newfound understanding, we must confront the entrenched notions that have hindered progress in rural broadband expansion. For too long the approach to rural connectivity has been narrowly defined by outdated policies and an over reliance on traditional methods like fiber deployment. These approaches, while effective in certain contexts, have not translated well to the unique challenges of rural landscapes. The assumption that what works in urban and suburban areas will be similarly effective in rural communities has led to a cycle of neglect and inefficiency. It's time we break free from this limited perspective and embrace a more inclusive, diverse approach to connectivity solutions. This includes recognizing and valuing the ingenuity emerging from rural America itself, as well as opening the doors to a broader range of technologies, including advanced wireless solutions, that can feasibly and efficiently bridge the connectivity divide.

It is time for us to collectively acknowledge that a dogmatic prescription for rural fiber is a prescription for the status quo—a status quo that leaves rural communities in a perpetual state of waiting for connectivity that has, for decades, yet to come and, as is seeming more and more likely, may never come. A state of waiting that, in the meantime, leaves rural communities totally unconnected to a digital world where, more and more, one must be connected to participate in society at all. As professionals dedicated to connecting the unconnected, we must advocate for a policy shift that embraces technology neutrality in grant administration. Wireless ISPs like Evergreen Technology Solutions are poised to deliver robust, reliable internet service to these areas rapidly and affordably. Still, we are often disqualified from even being considered as grant recipients due to structural barriers and prevailing attitudes.

Small businesses and local ISPs are frequently kept out of the running for grants, stifling competition and innovation. We have an opportunity to rectify this by opening the doors to a diverse range of providers, technologies, and ideas, fostering an environment where the best connectivity solutions rise to the top, irrespective of whether they are wired or wireless.

We must address the problem of inaccurate connectivity maps with urgency and precision. These maps guide our policies, funding, and our ability to make informed decisions about where to direct our efforts. The first step towards real change is acknowledging the inaccuracies and committing to a transparent process of correction and verification.

I urge all of us, especially those in positions to influence the administration of connectivity grants, to consider the broader implications of our current policy trajectory. Let us not cling to a singular technology out of tradition or inertia. Instead, let's champion an approach that prioritizes accessibility, efficiency, and truth in representation. Our rural communities deserve no less.


Brenden Smith

Director of Technology
Evergreen Technology Solutions

Beyond Fiber: Addressing the Rural Internet Challenge
Evergreen Technology Solutions, Brenden Smith January 4, 2024
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