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Connecting the Countryside: A Comprehensive Guide to Rural Internet Access in 2021

In today‘s digital age, reliable high-speed internet is no longer a luxury but a necessity. From remote work and distance learning to streaming entertainment and smart home technologies, fast broadband has become essential to participating in modern life.

Yet for the 60 million Americans living in rural areas, getting connected is often easier said than done. According to the FCC‘s 2021 Broadband Deployment Report, a staggering 17.3% of rural residents and 21.3% of those on tribal lands still lack access to fixed broadband meeting the agency‘s benchmark of 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload. That‘s compared to just 1.5% of urban Americans.

But there‘s hope on the horizon. From new technologies like low Earth orbit satellites and 5G to government initiatives and creative community solutions, rural America is slowly but surely getting wired. As a digital tech expert passionate about connectivity, I‘ll walk you through everything you need to know about rural internet access in 2021, from the key challenges and technologies to the top providers and emerging trends. Let‘s dive in!

The Rural Broadband Gap: Causes and Consequences

First, let‘s examine the roots of the rural broadband gap. The heart of the issue is low population density. In cities, providers can recoup the high costs of network infrastructure by connecting a large customer base in a small area. But in spread-out rural communities, building out broadband is much less cost-effective.

Rugged terrain poses additional hurdles – running miles of cable over hills, forests and rivers gets expensive fast. According to a report from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), rural broadband can cost 37% more to deploy per customer compared to urban areas.

The economic realities of rural America also play a role. With lower average household incomes, providers have a smaller addressable market for premium broadband packages. Lack of business investment limits anchor institutions that make network builds more feasible.

So what‘s the impact of the rural broadband gap? Quite simply, it cuts off millions from the digital economy and resources the rest of us take for granted. Students struggle to complete online assignments. Rural businesses can‘t reach global markets. Unemployed workers have a harder time finding and applying for jobs. Older folks miss out on the benefits of telehealth and connected care. In the words of FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the rural broadband gap risks creating a "digital divide that becomes a digital chasm."

Fixed Wireless Takes Flight

One of the most promising solutions bridging the divide is fixed wireless technology. Rather than stringing costly cables to every rural home, providers beam internet signals over the air from towers to receivers. This bypasses geographic barriers while offering speedy broadband rivaling cable and fiber.

Fixed wireless access (FWA) is surging in rural areas for several reasons:

  • Fast deployment: Once towers are built, adding customers is relatively quick and easy
  • Cost-effective coverage: One tower can serve homes across a wide area, no trenching required
  • Solid speeds: Newer FWA tech can deliver 100+ Mbps, exceeding FCC broadband minimums
  • Spectrum availability: Rollout of CBRS, C-Band and other frequencies is expanding FWA capacity

Leading FWA providers like Rise Broadband, AT&T, and Nextlink are capitalizing on these advantages to extend rural broadband access. Speeds from 25-100 Mbps are common, with some gigabit deployments in the works.

The rise of 5G fixed wireless using millimeter-wave spectrum could be an even bigger game-changer. Early tests from Verizon have delivered speeds up to 4 Gbps at range. T-Mobile and other carriers plan to use their 5G networks to offer home broadband in underserved areas.

However, fixed wireless isn‘t a silver bullet for rural broadband:

  • Line of sight requirements mean hills and foliage can obstruct connections
  • Shared bandwidth among users can slow speeds during peak times
  • Signal strength and thus speeds decrease with distance from the tower
  • Most plans come with data caps, typically 100-500 GB/month
  • Extreme weather can temporarily knock out service

But for many rural residents, FWA is a giant leap forward from aging DSL or cellular hotspots. As next-gen technologies mature, expect fixed wireless to play an even bigger role in the rural broadband mix.

The Satellite Internet Space Race

When you can‘t run cables on Earth, why not beam data from space? Satellite internet technology is rocketing ahead (pun intended) to connect the hardest-to-reach rural regions.

For years, legacy providers like HughesNet and Viasat held down the satellite fort, but often drew complaints for slow speeds, high latency and miserly data caps. Now a new fleet of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations is aiming to change the game.

Starlink, the buzzy venture from Elon Musk‘s SpaceX, has grabbed the most headlines. By launching over 1,600 satellites just 340 miles above Earth‘s surface (compared to 22,000 miles for traditional satellites), Starlink has slashed latency while boosting speeds and expanding coverage. The service is still in beta, but users routinely report download speeds around 100 Mbps – light years beyond legacy satellite performance.

Hot on Starlink‘s heels is Amazon‘s Project Kuiper, which received FCC approval in 2020 to deploy over 3,200 LEO satellites. A similar effort called OneWeb is also underway in partnership with investors like Hughes and the UK government. Even old-school providers are getting in on the action, with Viasat planning its own LEO constellation.

The implications for rural broadband are immense. With global coverage requiring no ground infrastructure, LEO satellite solutions could bring high-speed internet to virtually any location (with a clear view of the sky). The technology is particularly promising for developing countries, disaster response, and extremely remote areas where other options aren‘t feasible.

But there are still hurdles to overcome:

  • Initial equipment costs are steep, around $500 for Starlink users
  • Service is still in beta with limited availability; full rollouts will take years
  • Like all satellite internet, heavy rain and snow can disrupt the signal
  • Eventual speeds and data caps remain to be seen, but likely won‘t match fiber
  • Light pollution and space debris from thousands of satellites worry some experts
  • High-volume data use cases like 4K video may pose challenges

LEO satellite internet likely won‘t replace all other rural broadband technologies. But it could offer a lifeline to the most remote and underserved regions. As the space race heats up, rural America has reason to cheer. The final frontier might just be the key to conquering the digital divide.

Cellular Broadband: Connecting Through Your Carrier

For many rural dwellers, the same mobile networks powering their smartphones are also their ticket to home internet access. Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and UScellular all offer dedicated cellular broadband devices and plans for homes and businesses beyond the wired broadband footprint.

These battery-powered hotspots, modems and routers connect to cell towers, then beam out a Wi-Fi signal for your other devices to latch onto. Plug-in routers can blanket a whole home or business with a cellular connection.

The beauty of cellular broadband is its reach – if you can get a signal on your phone, you can probably get internet access, too. An estimated 99.9% of rural Americans have access to 4G LTE, per trade group CTIA.

Speeds over LTE typically range from 5-50 Mbps, depending on your carrier, device, and location. That‘s enough for general browsing, HD streaming, and most work-from-home tasks. But heavy users may chafe at the data caps on cellular plans, which can quickly get expensive.

The arrival of 5G promises to boost cellular broadband capacity in a big way. Verizon is already offering 5G Home fixed wireless service in a few cities, with speeds peaking around 1 Gbps. T-Mobile has ambitious plans to cover 97% of the US population with 5G FWA service over the next five years. AT&T and UScellular have also shared plans for 5G fixed wireless in rural and underserved areas.

But 5G rollout in the countryside will take years, as carriers are focused on urban areas first. Rural cell service still has some other downsides:

  • Shared bandwidth on the tower can slow speeds during peak usage times
  • "Deprioritization" policies throttle speeds for heavy data users
  • Terrain and distance from the tower impact signal strength
  • Prices for dedicated cellular broadband devices and service plans aren‘t cheap
  • 5G service (especially fast mmWave 5G) will be limited in rural areas for the foreseeable future

Still, 4G LTE is a viable rural broadband option for those too far from cable and DSL providers. And 5G could be a major disruptor as deployments scale up.

Tried-and-True DSL

With its roots in the 1990s, DSL may seem like a dinosaur compared to shiny new LEO satellites and 5G towers. But this technology that delivers data over copper phone lines is still the only wired broadband choice for many rural areas.

The key advantage of DSL is availability – if you have landline phone service, you can probably get DSL (though not always at broadband speeds). Providers like CenturyLink, Windstream, AT&T and Frontier have extensive DSL footprints in less dense regions.

Speeds typically range from 5-35 Mbps down and 1-10 Mbps up, depending on your distance from the provider‘s network hub. That‘s enough for most online activities, web conferences and standard definition streaming.

But DSL has technical limitations holding it back in the gigabit era. Signals degrade significantly over distance, so only those close to the hub will see speeds topping 25 Mbps. The recent rise of "ultra-fast" and VDSL protocols has pushed theoretical max speeds into the hundreds of Mbps, but real-world performance still varies wildly. Old copper lines and limited infrastructure investment are squeezing the life out of DSL in many markets.

Still, with no fiber, cable or fixed wireless on the horizon, DSL remains the best available option in some rural areas. Newer providers like Kinetic by Windstream are even expanding gigabit service over next-gen copper and fiber-copper hybrid networks. But the overall trend points towards the declining relevance of DSL in the broadband landscape.

Creative Community Solutions

Outside of these big broadband technologies, some rural areas are taking connectivity into their own hands through innovative community initiatives and partnerships.

Municipal broadband networks, typically owned and operated by local governments or public utilities, have gained steam in small towns unserved by private ISPs. Success stories like Chattanooga, TN and Sandy, OR show how communities can band together to build futureproof fiber networks.

Cooperatives are another model taking root in rural America. County-level co-ops first electrified the countryside in the 1930s. Now hundreds are leveraging their infrastructure and customer base to deploy broadband in underserved areas. Co-op members share network buildout costs but get superfast fiber speeds for affordable prices.

Some rural communities are even turning to "air-gapped" solutions like Wi-Fi on school buses, mobile hotspot lending programs, and community access points to bridge the broadband gap. Under the "TV White Spaces" model, providers like Microsoft are advocating for using vacant UHF channels to offer long-range broadband in remote areas.

None of these community-level solutions is a complete cure for the rural broadband disease. But they illustrate the creativity and resourcefulness of small towns taking the digital divide into their own hands. Coupled with an injection of federal and state funding, grassroots rural broadband initiatives could move the needle in a major way.

The Future of Rural Connectivity

As we‘ve seen, bringing broadband to the back roads is a complex challenge with no one-size-fits-all solution. Every rural community has its own geographic, economic and technological quirks requiring a tailored connectivity approach.

But make no mistake – bridging the broadband gap is an urgent national priority. With high-speed internet access now a prerequisite for full participation in modern society, we simply can‘t afford to leave rural America behind.

The good news is that momentum is building across the board. Well-established technologies like fixed wireless and satellite are evolving at breakneck speed to meet the rural broadband moment. Upstart providers and community networks are stepping in where big telcos fear to tread. And unprecedented government investment is poised to accelerate deployments and reduce costs.

The last mile will be the hardest. But with the right mix of technologies, policies, and local ingenuity, a connected countryside is coming into view. One day soon, broadband could be as ubiquitous in rural America as electricity and running water. Then the sky‘s the limit for what remote communities everywhere can achieve in the digital age.