Broadband Expands into Rural America, But How Many Will Adopt?

High-speed Internet is finally starting to reach the nation’s most remote areas. Many residents, though, are slow to adopt it.
by | November 2014
Green Bank, W.Va., resident Alfred Ervine watches a technician hook up his new Internet and TV service. David Kidd

Green Bank, W.Va., is not the sort of place where one would expect to find high-speed Internet. Surrounded by rocky terrain, the hamlet of fewer than 200 people lies on the edge of the Allegheny Mountains. Cellphone service is unavailable for miles and radio transmission is strictly limited to avoid interference with a federal astronomical observatory nearby. It’s a place where residents can, quite literally, live off the grid.

Even so, the grid is coming. Over the past year, crews have been laying the groundwork for broadband service that will better connect Green Bank to the rest of the world. A local telecom has wired the area with fiber-optic cable, sometimes averting black bears in order to dig lines in the ground along steep mountainsides. Residents are finally getting high-speed Internet.

But how many will use it?

Even as broadband infrastructure has spread across much of rural America in the past few years, often funded by the federal stimulus program of 2009, potential customers have been slow to adopt the technology. Some don’t have a computer, or they lack digital literacy. For others, it’s too expensive. Then there are those who’ve learned to live without the Internet and just don’t think it’s relevant to their lives. The older and poorer they are, the harder it is to get them online. “A lot of people had great expectations for the investments and infrastructure,” says John Horrigan, who has researched broadband for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and various think tanks. “They’re going to have a rude awakening in a couple years if they don’t see people using the services as much as they hoped for.”

For homes without an Internet connection, the largest barrier to adoption is that people just don’t feel they need it. A Governing analysis of microdata from the Census Bureau’s 2012 Current Population Survey shows that nearly 53 percent of U.S. householders without Internet service of any kind cited a lack of interest or need as the main reason for nonadoption. Another segment of the population remains stuck at slower speeds, mostly in remote areas where it’s costly to deploy service. About 8.5 percent of Americans lack access to connections that the FCC considers to be broadband.

Green Bank, W.Va., a hamlet of fewer than 200 people, is not the sort of place where one would expect to find high-speed Internet. (David Kidd)

Connecting the remaining broadband nonadopters, experts say, will be the most difficult. The review of data shows adoption rates outside of metro areas remain remarkably low, with less than half of select demographic groups having home broadband access. Just 49 percent of rural householders with no college education had adopted the service, while only 46 percent of rural householders age 65 and older had done so.

Lower-income families connect at notably lower rates. Of households outside metro areas with incomes below $25,000, just 41 percent had broadband, while half of those in metro areas had subscribed. Connected Nation, a nonprofit advocating for broadband expansion, estimates that 39 percent of nonadopters would sign up for broadband service if it were offered at a lower price point.

The overall pace of U.S. broadband adoption has slowed somewhat after a long period of rapid growth. About 70 percent of Americans reported broadband connections at home in the latest Pew Research Center survey last fall, up slightly from 64 percent from 2010. But as the service extends to the rural reaches where it hasn’t existed before, it’s much harder to sustain.

While Green Bank’s fiber network is new, the campaign to install it has been going on for several years. Miriam Hedrick, a representative for Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks Telephone, began going door to door in 2012 to sell residents on the prospect of high-speed service. The telephone cooperative received a federal grant to pay for the construction of a fiber network in Green Bank and six other towns.

Building out the high-speed network was no easy job. The rocky terrain made burying lines difficult. The fact that the area lies within the National Radio Quiet Zone complicated matters since the workers couldn’t use wireless signals that would interfere with the Green Bank Telescope. Vickie Colaw, the company’s general manager, estimates it may have cost $5,000 to $10,000 to deploy Internet to some of the most isolated residences. “It’s a unique situation and not your run-of-the-mill installation by any stretch,” she says.

Crews are stringing fiber-optic cable in remote parts of West Virginia. (David Kidd)

As in other rural areas, many of the telecom’s potential customers are older residents who tend to connect at lower rates. The median age in surrounding Pocahontas County is 47.5 years, about 10 years older than the national median. “A lot of the seniors we see coming in don’t even imagine all the ways they could use the Internet,” says Vicky Terry, the county library system’s director.

Some parts of rural America are connected to the Internet, but not in a way that is useful to them. A legacy provider in Pocahontas County offers low-grade DSL and dial-up service, but slow speeds and poor reliability limit its effectiveness. This is a source of great frustration for some locals, particularly business owners. “The Internet issue has been constant and persistent every year,” says David Fleming, the president of the Pocahontas County Commission.

Fleming started an online forum for residents to report download and upload speeds on the obsolete DSL system. The owner of Murphy’s Body & Repair Shop says his bids for online auto auctions don’t go through fast enough, so he frequently gives up. The only nearby option for Green Bank residents without any home access was the local library, which was also plagued by slow DSL service. Now that will change.

As in other remote areas, the economic implications of high-speed Internet in Green Bank are huge. Jobs remain scarce, with much of the area’s economy tied to logging or tourism. Once teenagers go off to college, few jobs exist to lure them back. Fleming says some residents might start second careers or launch Internet-based businesses if high-speed connections were more available throughout the county. “There’s a lot of entrepreneurial spirit here, but people need the Internet to do it,” he says.

In the past few years, West Virginia has seen some novel approaches in providing help to communities whose residents either couldn’t or wouldn’t subscribe to high-speed service. A nonprofit used stimulus funding to pay for more than 60 computer labs housed around the state in volunteer fire and rescue stations. Paid and volunteer lab mentors led classes in online genealogy research, GIS tracking and other subjects.

Ed Krueger ran a lab in Cass, an old logging town just south of Green Bank. Longtime residents who had never used a computer before stopped by, but some didn’t seem too interested after an initial visit. “The general population that’s been here forever could take it or leave it,” Krueger says. “The younger people and those who moved in from someplace else miss their Internet and cellphone.”

Now federal funding has expired, and only locations with volunteer mentors maintain open lab hours. Many of the labs now serve as classrooms for firefighters and first responders taking online training courses.

Ed Krueger oversees a computer lab in the back of a fire station. “With slow speeds, people get frustrated really quick when they try to play a video.” (David Kidd)

Nationally, enhancing digital literacy has served as a key component in the effort to increase adoption of high-speed service. In a 2013 Pew survey, about a third of offline adults reported they weren’t online primarily because of usability concerns, such as a lack of skills or finding the Internet too frustrating. Some telecoms and nonprofit groups have responded by providing training sessions and refurbished computers.

In many remote areas around the country, as in West Virginia, it’s the small, independent telecoms that are largely driving broadband adoption. Large companies often balk at the high costs of broadband deployment in sparsely populated rural areas. Talking to residents directly is generally more effective than offering impersonal promotions, says Rod Bowar, president of the Kennebec Telephone Company in central South Dakota. The company, like some other rural telecoms, holds classes with a focus on how the Internet can help customers in their everyday lives. Ranchers in South Dakota, for example, use streaming video to monitor cattle in their barns.

Many of the rural broadband buildouts have benefited from federal stimulus money. Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks Telephone in Green Bank received a grant from the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program to cover construction costs (although it did not receive funding for capital improvements or personnel).

All told, the federal government’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) awarded a total of $4.4 billion in stimulus funds for broadband connection over a period of several years. The vast majority of the federal grant money went toward infrastructure investment. A much smaller sum -- $249 million -- paid for digital literacy and other adoption projects, while another program awarded money for states to track data on broadband speeds and availability. According to NTIA, federal assistance was responsible for a total of 730,000 new broadband subscribers.

Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, says the federal grants were not sufficient to deal with the problem of limited Internet use in rural areas. “It was money well spent,” he says, “but it was not enough money to change the dynamics.”

The FCC has moved to modernize Lifeline, a federal program providing discounts on phone service, to include funding for broadband adoption. The agency launched a pilot program last year to study how funds might be directed to increase adoption. Fourteen selected pilot projects offer varying service discounts to eligible low-income consumers. The enrollment numbers from the pilot are expected to help determine how the agency structures future subsidies.

Those pushing efforts to speed up investment in infrastructure and adoption argue broadband shouldn’t be viewed as merely a luxury item or a way to watch Netflix. “We haven’t fully imagined what the Internet can do in rural communities,” Davis says. “We’ve thought of it more as a away to connect culturally and socially.”

In Green Bank, the benefits of high-speed Internet are just starting to be realized. Staff at the nearby National Radio Astronomy Observatory previously had to transport hard drives with raw data to West Virginia University in Morgantown a couple of times each week. Now, thanks to a state grant, they’re able to stream data with a 10-gigabit connection in real time. “We have been working to get increased Internet speeds in the county for 14 years,” says Mike Holstine, the observatory’s business manager. “The fact that we have added providers is a huge boon to the connectivity of the community.”

Broadband Adoption Map

The following map shows December 2013 broadband adoption rates for counties, with counties shaded darker having higher shares of fixed residential high-speed connections. (Click to open interactive map in new window)