Research and Analysis: Rural Internet Subscribers Pay More, New Data Confirms

Research and Analysis: Rural Internet Subscribers Pay More, New Data Confirms

Broadband access continues to be a hot topic for Daily Yonder readers, as state broadband offices work to get access to the first chunk of the $42.5 billion that will be doled out over the next 5+ years as part of the Infrastructure Act’s Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program.

Rural advocates have high hopes for the BEAD program.  While it primarily focuses on providing infrastructure to places that are “unserved” (no providers that offer speeds of at least 25 Mbps download / 3 Mbps upload) and “underserved” (no providers that offer speeds of at least 100 Mbps download / 20 Mbps upload), there is also a requirement for states to describe how their plan to award funds will address broadband affordability.

Dig Deeper

Both are important topics for rural residents.  The most recent data we have show dramatic rural – urban gaps in both broadband access (simple availability) and adoption (percent of households signing up for broadband).  It’s widely recognized that affordability plays a large role in why households remain offline. But because there is no federally collected data on broadband price that includes both rural and urban areas, very few studies have been able to quantify the price differences across these geographies.

Source: Conlow, 2023 (adoption data from 2017-21 American Community Survey; access data from December 2022 FCC Broadband Map)

Thankfully, BroadbandNow (an independent broadband availability website) went through the painstaking process of gathering pricing data from over 4,000 terrestrial broadband providers in late 2020 and compiled them into a Zipcode-level database that is publicly available.  Their pricing data is for the lowest-priced terrestrial (wired or fixed wireless) residential standalone internet package for 25 / 3 service and contains entries for over 26,000 Zip codes in the continental U.S.

The BroadbandNow dataset also includes the number of wired providers at different speed thresholds (25/3 and 100/3) as well as the number of fixed wireless providers.  This is all taken from the slightly outdated June 2019 FCC Form 477 dataset, but it still represents a reasonably accurate portrait of the availability situation when the pricing data was collected.  When this data is combined with a Zipcode-level measure of rurality, it allows for examination of how broadband price varies by both rurality and number of providers.

Source: Broadband Now; RUCA Codes from WWAMI Rural Health Research Center

The data show that in late 2020, the average monthly cost of a 25/3 broadband connection was nearly $13 higher in rural Zip codes.  In many ways, this is expected.  After all, rural areas tend to have dramatically fewer options for connecting – and there is a good argument that this “competition gap” is driving higher prices.  But the BroadbandNow data also allows us to break out urban vs. rural prices based on the number of providers available in a Zip code.

Source: BroadbandNow, Author’s Analysis. (Note that the price represents the lowest-priced 25/3 service, not the price of 100/3 service. Areas that do not have 100/3 service (“0 providers”) are still likely to have providers who offer broadband at slower speeds.)

This breakout shows us a few different things.  First, the “competition gap” is real – for both urban and rural locations.  Urban Zip codes with just a single provider are paying nearly $25 more per month (!) than those with two or more providers, and this gap is nearly $10 for rural Zips.  Second, rural and urban monthly prices are about the same in Zip codes with either 0 or 1 high-speed provider (only a few urban Zips have 0 high-speed providers).  But, in Zip codes with multiple high-speed providers, a significant rural-urban gap of more than $10 exists.  Some of this is because “2 or more providers” typically means a higher number in urban (4) than in rural (2) Zips.  Some of it is also likely because infrastructure is more costly to provide in less densely-populated areas – and rural providers may need to charge higher prices to recover that investment.

This leads us to the BEAD funding’s affordability requirements. States are generally going to be spending this money in locations without another viable high-speed option, which by itself should decrease consumer costs in those locations (i.e. help them move from $88.44 to $64.90 in the above figure). Beyond this, all BEAD funding recipients are required to “offer at least one low-cost broadband service option for eligible subscribers.” Many states are interpreting this as offering an option for $30 per month or less, so that it would be fully covered by the Affordable Connectivity Program monthly subsidy. Notably, most Zip codes with 2+ high-speed providers will not be getting BEAD funds, so we shouldn’t expect many $30 or less options to pop up in these locations.

Beyond the low-cost option, the BEAD program requires each state to develop a “middle-class affordability plan.”  Preliminary plans from Louisiana and Virginia suggest that these states will include a component for affordability when they score each grant applicant prior to distributing their funds. Louisiana, in particular, will award applicants additional points if they commit to specific rates at a variety of broadband speeds.

Others have asked for additional guidance about the middle-class affordability plans, and at least one analysis has suggested that broadband is already affordable for middle-class households.  It seems likely that this requirement will be implemented differently across states – and will be worth following as the BEAD plans progress.

(Note that you can follow your state’s progress on the BEAD proposals here.  The plans are required to obtain public comments, and direct links to these plans are here.)

Brian Whitacre, Ph.D., is professor and Neustadt Chair in the department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University and is an extension specialist for rural economic development. Read more of the research Brian has published in the Daily Yonder.

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‘Massive’ federal solar investment could mean big utility savings in Kentucky coal country

Main Cross Street in Louisa, Kentucky.

An unlikely collaboration between a Kentucky coalfield county and Kentucky’s largest city began when a former high school English teacher, Megan Downey, walked into the Lawrence County courthouse in Louisa in August.

Inspired by a personal desire to find ways to tackle the impacts of climate change, Downey had launched a nonprofit called The Solar Collaborative last year in Virginia dedicated to helping Appalachian communities transition to renewable energy.

She had been pitching an idea to local governments across Eastern Kentucky: Seek some of the billions in federal funding up for grabs in the Solar for All competition. Through the competition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to invest $7 billion through 60 grants to states, local governments, nonprofits and tribal governments to “increase access to affordable, resilient, and clean solar energy for millions of low-income households.” The money comes from the Inflation Reduction Act’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund.

When Downey talked with Deputy Judge-Executive Vince Doty about the opportunity, he agreed “within minutes” to sign up.

“He’s the biggest advocate, I think, in the whole region for this type of project,” Downey said. “A lot of low-income communities don’t have access to that economic savings that’s associated with solar, and so it’s just one more way in which a wealth gap is continuing to increase.”

Doty brought other Eastern Kentucky counties on board for an application to the competition; judge-executives in Lawrence, Johnson, Martin, Floyd, Pike, Boyd, Greenup counties all wrote letters of support. After learning they had both submitted letters of intent to apply for the federal funding, the mountain counties teamed up with Louisville’s government to submit a unified application that could provide affordable access to solar energy for thousands of low-income homes in Kentucky from its largest cities to its rural Appalachian counties.

It’s one of two competing applications from Kentucky. The other was submitted by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet; solar advocates say it could be a significant boost  for the use of residential solar across the state.

Advocates argue more distributed solar, for example via solar panels on rooftops, could mean utility bill savings for Kentuckians and a curbing of greenhouse gas emissions connected to Kentucky’s fossil fuel-reliant electricity grid.

For Doty, seeking funding for solar was foremost about easing the financial burden of his constituents in a region that faces continued economic challenges from the decline of the coal industry. Lawrence County is one of 20 Eastern Kentucky counties served by electric utility Kentucky Power, which has the highest monthly residential utility bills in Kentucky, according to a state analysis.

“We always try to put our citizens first,” Doty said. “If there’s a chance that we can save somebody $300 a month off their electric bill, that’s worth trying for.”

Solar low-income households, ‘resilience hubs’ and job training

Both the Louisville-Eastern Kentucky and state government proposals are wide in scope, highlighting specific ideas for how to use tens of millions of dollars in federal funding. Both applications could mean integrating solar energy into thousands of homes, whether through direct ownership of rooftop solar installations or better access to existing or planned community solar projects.

The Louisville-Eastern Kentucky application is asking for $150 million to be spent over five years, proposing:

  • A zero to low-cost forgivable loan program geared toward having low-income households own small solar installations or receive energy efficiency upgrades. For example, homeowners applying to the loan program who are below 80% of the area median income could have an entire loan forgiven for a six-kilowatt solar installation; half of the loan could be forgiven for property owners renting to Kentuckians below 80% of the area median income.
  • Turn community centers in areas prone to natural disasters into “resilience hubs” equipped with solar power and electric battery storage for times of power outages.
  • Build a workforce to deploy residential solar by creating training programs, building on already existing programs in Kentucky’s community and technical college system.

Downey said Doty had advocated in a number of meetings as the Louisville-Eastern Kentucky application was being developed that it was a “non-negotiable” that Kentuckians should own the solar installations themselves

The application anticipates, if awarded funding, at least a 20% energy bill reduction for approximately 7,300 households in Kentucky taking part in the proposal. Households that ultimately receive a six-kilowatt solar installation for free could see energy bill reductions up to 50%, according to the application.

“If you put solar on your home, you immediately have benefits economically from the savings that you garner. It also increases the value of your home,” Downey said. “So this has the potential for a really significant impact if you look at it over 25 years as far as wealth generation goes.”

The Louisville-Eastern Kentucky application estimates the results of the funding would add another approximate 44 megawatts of distributed solar power onto Kentucky’s grid. That would increase distributed solar in the state by about 70%, with 63.5 megawatts of distributed solar already in Kentucky.

The application also estimates about 1,300 “green jobs” will be created through the proposed solar investment. Steve Ricketts, the board chair of the advocacy group Kentucky Solar Energy Society, said while construction work associated with larger, utility-scale solar projects is temporary, ending once the project is completed, those workers also can work on installing solar in their own communities.

“They can be working on homes in their own town, they can be working on businesses and around town. So the two are incredibly complementary, and, frankly, have to go together to make it all work,” Ricketts said.

Sumedha Rao, the executive director of Louisville Metro Government’s Office of Sustainability, said the estimates of solar power added, households helped and renewable energy jobs created through the funding proposal are somewhat conservative and that the impact of the grant could be even more.

Given that Kentucky has historically relied on fossil fuels, she said, a transition to renewables can be a “scary proposition” for some Kentuckians. But she believes the Solar for All grant competition has a lot of upside with helping the state transition economically.

“We really feel like this is something that can have a massive impact for years to come,” Rao said.

Solar installations for rebuilt homes, ‘solarize’ campaigns and community solar

The Solar for All application submitted by state officials leads with its own idea of how residential solar can be deployed across the state, particularly in areas hit by devastating floods and tornadoes in recent years.

Requesting $100 million from the Solar for All competition, one of the state’s proposals is to put residential solar and an electricity battery storage system on 850 “disaster recovery” homes that could result in 70% utility bill savings for each home — or up to $1,000 in annual bill savings per home — over the course of 20 years.

For Kenya Stump, the executive director of the state’s Office of Energy Policy, eliminating most of the energy bills is just one way to help people recovering from natural disasters who may have lost every material thing they own.

“If they can live in a home from here on out that is more resilient, that also has the burden of that kind of cost is no longer there — shouldn’t we kind of strive for that?” Stump said.

  • The application also proposes to help increase solar access for low-income Kentuckians, support housing nonprofits in creating energy-efficient housing, develop residential solar in cities and boost the state’s solar deployment workforce in several ways: Create subsidies and carve-outs to help Kentuckians participating in the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, take part in existing and planned “community solar” projects to cut residential utility bills by about 20%.
  • Add solar power and electricity battery storage onto about 1,500 homes that already have energy efficiency upgrades, such as households that have participated in Weatherization Assistance Program.
  • Develop “Solarize” campaigns to promote residential solar in Kentucky cities including Paducah, Owensboro, Henderson, Bowling Green, Lexington and Ashland.
  • Create 1,500 “work-ready” scholarships and provide funding to community and technical colleges funding to create solar deployment training programs.

Stump said in many instances low-income Kentuckians live in homes that are old and energy inefficient, leading to higher energy usage and subsequently higher utility bills. She said by enrolling LIHEAP recipients in community solar programs — such as ones offered by East Kentucky Power Cooperative and Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities (LG&E and KU) — they can get a direct credit on their bill and get more value from the utilized renewable energy.

“The energy regardless of the source will just still leak out” of poorly insulated, inefficient homes, Stump said. “We also hope that this will incentivize the growth of more municipal and utility community solar offerings that would be eligible to have LIHEAP carve-outs as well.”

Some stakeholders involved in the Louisville-Eastern Kentucky application, while supportive of community solar projects in general, were skeptical of using Solar for All funds on such projects out of concerns that some community solar models, specifically LG&E and KU’s “Solar Share” program, subsidize an asset of an investor-owned utility with taxpayer funds.

Stump said while stakeholders may wish some existing community solar projects were designed differently, it’s what is currently offered by Kentucky utilities and “can provide some benefit” to low-income Kentuckians that haven’t been able to take advantage.

The two Kentucky applications submitted to Solar for All do align on ways to boost the workforce needed to install residential solar on homes, though Stump added that developing a renewable energy workforce needs to be paced with the deployment of solar.

“That’s our greatest challenge is to make sure we get the timing right so that it aligns with the deployment of projects. We don’t want to give someone hope, and then there not be any work,” Stump said.

For Stump, the Solar for All competition is just one federal program and incentive among many that will ultimately “shift and transform our energy landscape.”

No guarantee both applications will be awarded

Lane Boldman, the executive director of the environmental advocacy group Kentucky Conservation Coalition, believes both applications are “really solid” but points out the federal government is only giving out 60 grants. Competition for the grants is stiff: More than 30 states have submitted notices that they’re applying along with a number of local governments and nonprofits across the country.

Lawrence County and Louisville decided to collaborate, in part, to increase the chances that their Solar for All application would get awarded. The stakeholders with Lawrence County and Louisville also tried unsuccessfully to unify their application with the state’s proposal.

Boldman said a big question became if a single grant application could ask for enough funding to cover all of the “great ideas” being proposed for the competition.

“The decision really was that it was better to keep them as two separate applications,” Boldman said. “I have to say that I think both grants are very strong and deserving, and so we just have to wait and see what the federal government decides.”

‘Massive’ federal solar investment could mean big utility savings in Kentucky coal country is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

Poor, Rural Kids Earn More than Urban, Poor Kids Later in Life. A Higher Incidence of Two-Parent Households Might be the Reason

Authors of a new study on social mobility found rural children born in poverty gain higher incomes as adults compared to low-income urban children. But on some measures of income attainment, girls born in low-income households don’t benefit from the same rural advantage as boys.

Factors like community trust, social capital, and the rate of two-parent households help explain more upward social mobility, or positive change in one’s economic status, among rural children born into poverty, according to a 2023 study.

“Rural places actually seem to be faring quite well relative to their counterparts in cities and larger towns,” said professor Dylan Connor, Ph.D., in a phone interview with the Daily Yonder. “People have kind of noticed this rural advantage, but haven’t really been able to explain it.”

Connor is an associate professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University and one of four authors on the social mobility study. He said the research emerged out of a need to examine why social mobility in the United States is looking increasingly worse for children born into poverty.

“The U.S. has this long history of being kind of a land of opportunity,” Connor said. “But when we look at comparisons today between the U.S. and other countries, we’re now not faring as well as we used to be.”

In response to this trend, Connor and other researchers think it’s important to look at places that are still delivering opportunity and to try to determine what characteristics of those places make them favorable.

The Advantage of a Two-Parent Household

“The conventional thing that people have said is that conditions are so bad in these rural places that kids just grow up and leave,” Connor said. But he said his research demonstrated the opposite. “Rural places actually seem quite favorable compared to urban places.”

Connor and his colleagues found that rural children in poverty achieved higher incomes as adults than urban children in poverty did. One explanation is that a greater share of rural children are born into two-parent households.

“We know that, on average, kids growing up in [two-parent households] seem to do better as adults on a whole range of outcomes,” Connor said.

That finding holds true when the researchers controlled for factors like race.

The rural advantage doesn’t just apply to the people who grew up in a rural community but moved to a city as adults. The study demonstrated that both low-income children who remained in a rural community through adulthood and those who left experienced an income advantage compared to their urban-born peers.

“The source of the rural advantage is rooted more in the childhood and adolescent contexts faced by individuals rather than the labor markets in which they ultimately work,” the study states.

White and Hispanic children experience a greater rural advantage than children born in Black households. Appalachia and parts of the rural South are also exceptions to the rural advantage. These regions generally have lower rates of two-parent households, and low-income rural children there tend to not do as well as their rural counterparts in other regions, according to Connor.

Connor and his colleagues also looked at whether factors other than family structure contribute to income mobility. They looked at marriage rates, volunteering rates, poverty, employment, and the racial composition of communities, among other characteristics. But they found that no other variable has as much power over mobility as the two-parent household effect.

With Personal Income, Girls Are at a Rural Disadvantage

Females born into poverty in rural areas had an advantage in household income over their urban counterparts compared to urban females. But with personal income – which refers to the incomes of each adult member of the household, not their combined incomes – women earned significantly less than their male peers.

“What we actually see is that the rural advantage is really being driven by the personal incomes of the man in the house,” Connor said.

The authors attribute these differences to the gender roles rural women may be more likely to face compared to their urban counterparts.

Disparities in personal income between men and women are greater in rural areas than they are in urban ones.

“Rural women are more likely to get married earlier, start having children earlier, and they’re less likely to go to college,” Connor said. “You could almost think of it as a traditional rural effect. Women actually seem to benefit from growing up in a city in terms of pursuing their own careers and so on.”

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Biden Touts Rural Achievements as Part of “Barnstorming” Tour

President Joe Biden is seen from the shoulders up in the midst of attendees of his barnstorming tour.

The Biden administration is in the final days of a two-week national rural “barnstorm” designed to take the administration’s accomplishments to rural America, which could be a pivotal part of the 2024 presidential election.

President Biden kicked off the tour with a speech at Dutch Creek Farms, a farm located in Minnesota’s southern Dakota County, on November 1. Biden, who faces a tight reelection race, focused on how he was improving rural life for farmers struggling because of the pandemic and climate change. Though some of his remarks resonated with rural attendees, for others they fell flat.

The Calculus in Minnesota

This Minnesota family farm is the only event Biden has attended himself during the rural tour, which includes stops in urban cities such as Indianapolis, too. He may have prioritized Minnesota as part of his strategy to win votes for next year. Though the farm in Dakota county where he spoke is not rural by federal definition — it is one of seven counties that comprise the Twin Cities metropolitan area — it is about three miles north of rural Rice County, where Biden lost to Trump by less than a point.

He is also struggling to raise funds from Minnesota donors. As of September, former President Donald Trump raised just over $580,000 from Minnesota donors, more than Biden’s $388,000. And an Emerson College poll shows Biden holds only a slight two-point lead over Trump.

Meanwhile, a national poll indicates that economic issues are top-of-mind among rural voters.

Results of the poll, conducted by the Center for Rural Strategies and Lake Research Partners, were released the same day Biden spoke in Minnesota. It found that rural voters were concerned most about the high cost of goods, affordable housing, and corporate greed. Biden’s speech also comes about a month after a Reuters poll found 71% of rural Americans disapproved of his presidential performance.

Putting Money in Rural America

Speaking inside a barn on the 81-acre Dutch Creek Farms property, Biden talked about his efforts to enhance rural quality of life, mostly through an agricultural lens. These efforts include money to grow cover crops to address climate change, money to foster smaller meat processing plant operations, and money for broadband, clean water, roads, and electricity.  Biden hopes this will address the high cost of goods, deter corporate greed, and ensure rural people can afford to stay in rural America.

Biden plans to invest nearly $1.7 billion for more “climate-smart” agriculture practices, an additional $2 billion to increase health care and affordable housing access in rural communities whose leaders work together through the Rural Partners Network, $1.1 billion to repair rural electrical and water infrastructure, $145 million for farmers to install clean energy generating technologies like solar panels, and an additional $274 million to expand high-speed internet to rural communities.

This is on top of $1 billion he already invested through the American Rescue Plan to support small and medium-sized meat processors. In his speech, Biden talked about Brad Kluver, the owner of Dutch Creek Farms, who had to sell his hogs on social media when larger meat processing plants closed at the beginning of the pandemic.

Brad Kluver of Dutch Creek Farms, pictured here with President Joe Biden, is a third-generation farmer. (Photo: H. Jiahong Pan)

“And instead of … depending on one income stream and being at the mercy of the commodity markets and the big corporations, under our plan, farmers can diversify and earn additional income just [by] selling into the local markets,” said Biden in his speech. “Because of these investments we’re making, family farms like this one will stay in the family, and children and grandchildren like Brad won’t have to leave home to make a living.

Hope and Anxiety

Some who attended believed Biden is doing a good job. Angela Dawson, a Black hemp farmer in Pine County, halfway between the Twin Cities and Duluth, Minnesota, applauded Biden’s attempts to address racial injustice in farming, even though they were ultimately struck down by a federal judge.

Angela Dawson stands against a railing at the first stop on President Biden's "barnstorming" tour. She is a Black woman wearing braids, thick glasses, and a patterned scarf.
Angela Dawson, a hemp farmer from Pine County, Minnesota is hopeful about some of Biden’s efforts. (Photo: H. Jiahong Pan)

“I do feel [Biden has] made some good efforts. I think specifically farmers of color have been usually the last priority for a lot of administrations. This is the first time that we’ve been put a little higher on the priority list, and I’d like to see that continue,” said Dawson, who mentioned that the Black farming population dwindled by more than 90% over the past 100 years.

Rodrigo Cala agrees. Cala, who works for the Latino Economic Development Center, a St. Paul-based organization that supports economic development for Latino families, received a grant from the USDA, bankrolled by the American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act, to strengthen small farmers’ access to land, capital, and markets. The organization plans to help aspiring Latino farmers purchase land in Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Wisconsin starting next year.

Cala also says the Biden administration still needs to do more for farmers of color. “Who’s going to be the next generation of farmers in this country? The average age of farmers is 58 years old,” said Cala, who also mentioned that the country – and particularly rural communities – is diversifying.

One of these next-generation farmers is Tessa Parks, who is of white, Japanese and Filipino descent. She and her husband moved to Minnesota to run a farm in the same Dakota County township where Biden spoke.

The Parks came to Minnesota because they couldn’t afford to live in Washington, let alone start a farm there. “[I would need] to win the lottery. We would go bankrupt before we could have any animals on the ground,” said Tessa Parks. “I miss my mom’s cooking. I miss my grandma’s cooking. I tear up when I get my favorite teriyaki chicken and gyoza.” Tessa added that climate change is another factor that led them to start a farm in Minnesota.

In a phone call with the Daily Yonder after Biden’s speech, Parks said she wanted to hear more about health care and child care. “[So that] I won’t go bankrupt if I choose to have a child. We shouldn’t have to worry about taking care of ourselves versus paying the mortgage, or having enough money to put gas in the car to even get to the job that we need to pay for our farm to pay for our house, pay for food,” she said.

Parks was also concerned about getting help on the farm, especially if she or her husband becomes ill. “We need to rely on other outside-of-family folks to lend us a hand sometimes,” she said. “Our dads aren’t able to jump on a tractor and lend help when we need it, because they’re in Washington [state].”

The Biden administration has worked to make health care accessible by cracking down on “surprise” bills and so-called junk plans, named because although they are affordable health care plans, they don’t cover much. The Biden administration is also asking a divided Congress for $16 billion to fund child care nationwide.

Still, it’s not comforting for Parks, who has health insurance with a high deductible and had medical debt from an illness that she just finished paying off. While Parks and her husband farm in their free time, they also work full-time jobs advancing sustainable farming practices. They currently can’t afford to live on their farm and  instead live in neighboring Rice County.

“When he was explaining his investments in rural America and small family farms, it feels really targeted at established farms, multigenerational farms, specifically white landowners, not those of us who struggle to afford rent [on] land that [we] will put a lot of time and energy into maintaining and growing food, but ultimately have no security in,” said Parks.

Other Stops on the Rural Tour

Biden was joined in Minnesota by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Shortly afterward, Vilsack traveled to Indianapolis to speak about the Farm Bill, improving electrical infrastructure in rural Indiana, and engaging youth in agriculture, at the National Future Farmers of America convention in Indianapolis. Vilsack also met with the Western Governors’ Association in Wyoming to talk about how farmers can address climate change, and delivered opening remarks at a water symposium at Colorado State University.

Other cabinet appearances included Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Xochitl Torres Small, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Veteran Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, Deputy Secretary of Veteran Affairs Tanya Bradsher, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, Centers for Disease Control director Mandy Cohen, and others. These stops covered funding for rural issues like meat processing and wastewater handling, electrical access and infrastructure, veteran affairs, education, and health care.

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Rural Voters Swing More than 20 Points from Trump in 2020 to Abortion Rights in 2023

Rural voters in Ohio on Tuesday were part of a general shift away from Republican Party priorities, resulting in a victory for a state constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights.

Statewide, the measure protecting access to abortion and other reproductive rights passed 56% to 44%.

The vote represents a dramatic departure from Republican performance in the 2020 presidential election. That year, former President Donald Trump won the Ohio vote by a margin of 8 points. This week the constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights, which the Republican Party opposed, won by nearly 13 points.

That’s a 21-point shift from Republican candidate Trump in 2020 to the Republican position on the abortion amendment in 2023.

Rural voters were part of that shift. In 2020, Ohio voters in rural counties supported Trump 72% to 28%, a margin of over 40 points. In Tuesday’s referendum, rural voters opposed the abortion-rights amendment. But they did so by a margin of 18 points, less than half the margin that Trump racked up in the 2020 presidential election.

This week’s results are similar to Ohio’s constitutional referendum in August, in which the abortion issue was on the ballot indirectly through a technical measure.

The graph compares the vote by county type for Trump in 2020 to the “no” vote on the constitutional amendment. In every county type, opposition to the amendment (the Republican position) trailed support for Trump in 2020.

Rural voters were the group with the second-biggest shift from 2020. The biggest shift occurred in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas such as Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus. Those counties shifted 15 points from supporting Trump in 2020 to supporting the abortion-rights amendment in 2023.

County-type definitions used in this analysis:

County Type Definition Percent of Total Vote
Major Metro Core Central counties of metropolitan areas with 1 million or more residents. 29%
Major Metro Suburbs Suburban counties of metropolitan areas with 1 million or more residents. 23%
Medium Metro Core Central counties of metropolitan areas with 250,000 to under 1 million residents. 17%
Medium Metro Suburbs Suburban counties of metropolitan areas with250,000 to under 1 million residents. 8%
Small Metros Counties in metropolitan areas with fewer than 250,000 residents 4%
Non-Metro Counties that are not in a metropolitan area. Synonymous with rural in this analysis. 19%

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Rural Voters in Swing States Present Untapped Potential, New Poll Suggests

Editor’s Note: The Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder, conducted this survey with Lake Research Partners.

Largely untapped political messaging about the economy could sway a large swath of rural voters in battleground states, a new survey by the Center for Rural Strategies suggests.

The findings provide a potential new and more effective roadmap for candidates vying for seats in state legislatures, Congress, and the White House ahead of the 2024 elections. The survey suggests as many as 37% of rural voters are swing, blue-collar voters who could be swayed by the right policy proposals and messaging.

While partisanship remains strong among the rural electorate, voters were aligned on many of their chief concerns: affordable housing, the high cost of food, and corporate greed.

The Center for Rural Strategies and Lake Research Partners, a Democratic research firm, interviewed a weighted sample of 500 likely voters in rural ZIP codes in 12 states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona, and Georgia.

Want to see the full poll results? Find them here.

By far, these likely voters put the rising cost of living as their highest concern. The policy offerings presented by the surveyors suggest a populist message focusing on the affordability of housing, healthcare access, and improving schools could sway voters who are currently under-targeted by many Democratic candidates.

  • 51% of Democrats thought the economy was working well for them, compared to 17% of Republicans.
  • Respondents were asked to pick two issues from a list of 14 that were the most important for themselves and their families. The respondents could also choose “other,” “none,” or “not sure.
  • 54% chose the rising cost of living as one of their most important issues, followed by retirement and Social Security (25%), health care (19%), dysfunction in government (15%), and jobs and the economy (15%).
  • Respondents were asked to pick two concerns from a list of 11 that were the most important for themselves and their families. The respondents could also choose “other,” “none,” or “not sure.
  • 43% chose the rising cost of food as one of their most important issues, followed by rising gas prices (24%), rising energy costs (21%), rising housing costs (19%), and a lack of good-paying jobs (18%).

Three messaging points — lowering prices; bringing good-paying jobs to local communities; and a populist message focused on corporate greed — received such broad support that they rivaled voters’ agreement on core values like family and freedom.

The cost-benefit analysis of how much the Democratic Party should focus on rural areas has led to debate among strategists and party officials. In North Carolina, Democratic Party Chair Anderson Clayton rose to power on a platform of reaching young and rural voters, even those in the reddest counties.

“​​County parties are supposed to be the grassroots, or the ‘local voice’ of the Democratic Party,” Clayton told the Daily Yonder in 2021. “Yet in rural communities, Democratic county parties are struggling or non-existent, and have been since the national party diverted its attention from focusing efforts on organizing in rural America.”

Five policy points were viewed favorably by more than 90% of the people surveyed. They included creating manufacturing jobs instead of shipping jobs overseas; lowering prescription drug prices; improving schools; and providing skilled training to local workers.

Others, like cracking down on price gouging and expanding access to high-speed internet, received nearly 90% support from likely rural voters.

  • Republicans, Democrats, and independents and weak partisans all chose the following policy proposal as their favorite out of a list of 10: “We need to reduce inflation and make life more affordable because, from gas to groceries to prescription drugs, the cost of living is too expensive for working families.”
  • Partisan voters split on policy proposals related to cutting taxes and government spending, and with making sure wealthy corporations paid their fair share. However, weak partisans and independents ranked both those policies in their top three.
  • Based on survey answers, pollsters broke down the respondents into five groups: small government older Republicans (18%), economy and tax-focused blue-collar workers (19%), anti-corporation retired Democrats (12%), younger jobs-oriented women (14%), and less defined blue-collar voters (37%).

While there was broad agreement on several policy proposals, partisanship revealed itself when asking voters about candidates like Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Biden was viewed unfavorably by 66% of respondents, while Trump was viewed unfavorably by 48%.

Over the past two presidential elections, Trump expanded his share of the rural vote from 59% in 2016 to 65% in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. Republican candidates have performed better in rural congressional districts, too.

The Daily Yonder found that in 2006, half of rural voters supported Republican congressional candidates. That figure has generally grown since then, reaching 68% in the 2022 midterms.

Still, pollster Celinda Lake said the poll revealed the potential for Democrats to perform much better in rural areas than they might otherwise believe.

“We don’t get in enough to local communities with local voices, tailoring the message to local experience — to the rural experience,” she said.

Lake said the survey also revealed the importance of understanding the economic web of rural economies. While candidates might focus on improving infrastructure — a local bridge that needs repair, for example — they might miss the conversation about who is hired to make the repairs and how those workers are paid. Those issues might be as important to people as the repairs themselves.

“There’s a broader conversation around the story of that bridge, and we don’t tend to tell that story,” Lake said. “We just say we put X billion dollars into infrastructure and let it go at that, and then we wonder why it doesn’t work.”

Seventy percent of respondents said they don’t believe the economy is working well for them. Republicans were more likely to hold this belief than Democrats, at 82% for Republicans and 48% for Democrats.

And while the rising cost of living was the top issue for people aligned with both parties and for independents, Republicans were also more likely to put that as their top issue.

People’s values also showed some partisan differences. Republicans, independents or weak partisans and voters of color all put family, freedom and faith as their top three values. Democrats put family, equality and kindness or compassion as their top three.

Along with the polling, the Center for Rural Strategies held focus groups in rural Minnesota, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Ohio. The concerns presented there reflected those of the poll: that the economy is not working for rural Americans, said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies

People’s sense of identity in rural places has long been connected to their work, Davis said. As many of those industries faded or moved overseas, people’s sense of identity and connection to America as a whole weakened.

Still, the effectiveness of policy messages shows a path forward, he said. While many candidates focus heavily on suburban areas where voters are viewed as more persuadable, the polling suggests rural areas may be well worth the time and money.

“This was not a response of people who didn’t want to be connected,” Davis said, “but who were longing to be reconnected with the country.”

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Rural Hospital Turns to Crowdfunding for Help

Bucktail Medical Center, an independent hospital in western Clinton County, Pennsylvania, is asking for nearly $1.5 million on the crowdfunding platform to help it stay open.

Tim Reeves, the hospital’s administrator, said in an interview with the Daily Yonder that the 16-hospital bed and adjacent 43-bed nursing home are the only hospital with in-patient facilities for nearly 40 miles. While the hospital has struggled for years, he said, it had just come out of bankruptcy reorganization and plans were being made to attract more patients and increase revenue.

But some unexpected financial news hit the hospital hard.

Over the course of less than two weeks, the hospital saw a series of financial setbacks. First, one of its employee retention credit applications, worth up to $400,000, was delayed. That filing became mired in a bureaucratic chain of events that meant a delay of up to 14 months. Next, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services sent a notice that it had overpaid the hospital in 2018, and they needed to pay back $255,000.

“They want to recoup that and the way they do it is they just stop paying us our medical assistance payments until they make it up,” Reeves said.

Following that, the hospital was informed by one of its commercial insurers that the hospital needed to pay back $82,000 because of documentation problems over physical therapy charges, and then the company that provided physical, occupational, and speech therapy announced they were pulling their services out of the hospital, eliminating that potential revenue stream.

“Could we weather one of those? Probably,” Reeves said. “But the four of those together? It’s just made it impossible to have the cash that we need to operate.”

Without some short-term funding, Reeves said, the hospital may be forced to close.

The idea to put a fundraising call out on GoFundMe came from one of the hospital’s board members, he said. So far, the campaign has raised just over $15,500.

Still, the hospital is working with its state legislators and Congressmembers to get some help.

“We’re in contact with all of them pretty much on a weekly basis, and they’ve been able to come up with some things to help in the long term, but not a lot so far for short-term assistance,” he said. “We’re trying to reach out in every direction that we can, it just seems very difficult to find any readily available funding.”

Bucktail’s situation is not far off from that of other rural hospitals. According to the Chartis Center for Rural Health, 141 rural hospitals have closed since 2010. Of the rural hospitals in the U.S. nearly half (43%) are operating in the red, the center said.

“There are 453 rural hospitals that are considered vulnerable to closure, over 215 of them at high risk,” Brock Slabach, COO of the National Rural Health Association, told The Daily Yonder. “I’m hearing about more financial distress in rural hospitals, due to lower volumes and increased expenses, especially due to higher labor costs.”

Slabach said the situation at Bucktail is one that the NRHA is monitoring.

Reeves said when he took over Bucktail Medical a little over nine years ago, the hospital was struggling. After filing for Chapter 11 organization in 2015, it seemed like there was a light at the end of the tunnel when the hospital came out of bankruptcy in 2018. But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, financial stresses came with it.

Once the pandemic subsided, the hospital decided to change the facility in order to better meet the needs of the community, he said, and to increase patient volume.

“We’d come up with a master plan,” Reeves said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “We’d started to implement the first two steps of that, which was to start up our ambulance service, which we did on June 15, and to increase our diagnostic testing ability.”

In October, the hospital will have a CT facility in its parking lot to add to the hospital’s diagnostic abilities. Previously, he said, patients might be transported to other facilities with better diagnostic capabilities but would never return for treatment.

“We were hoping that these two improvements would generate greater patient volume,” he said. “Increased patient volumes in our emergency room will also increase patient volumes in our acute care hospital, but also generate revenue through other services like our laboratory, physical therapy, and other things.”

Kyle C. Kopko, executive director for the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, said in an email interview with the Daily Yonder there are 18 hospitals in that state that are at risk for closure. There is pending legislation in the state that would help struggling rural hospitals, but nothing has been enacted yet, he said.

The nature of rural hospitals makes them financially vulnerable, Kopko said. Rural hospitals tend to have higher percentages of patients on Medicare and Medicaid, but reimbursement rates for those patients are inadequate. Additionally, declining populations in rural areas lead to less demand for services, while staffing shortages lead to hospitals relying on more expensive contract workers.

NRHA’s Slabach said that as the federal government reduces the number of people on Medicare and Medicaid, it’s an issue that will face many more struggling rural hospitals.

“We’re now at over seven million people having been disenrolled from Medicaid coverage,” Slabach said. “This won’t help troubled rural hospitals, that’s for sure, since rural communities have higher percentages of older, sicker, and poorer populations than their urban counterparts.”

Still, Reeves said, the hospital is working with its vendors and trying to meet its payroll every week. At 85 employees, it is the largest employer in western Clinton County, he said. The impact of the hospital closing would be devastating for the county, he said.

As he works on a short-term solution, there are long-term decisions America has to make about healthcare in rural areas, he said.

“I think as a society we need to make a choice – do all Americans deserve the same level of health care?” he said. “Are we okay with the disparity where you may receive a lesser quality of health care because of where you decide to live?”

In the meantime, Reeves said he will continue fighting for Bucktail and the community it serves.

“We are still providing services, we’re still billing, we’re still collecting some money, but it just has not been enough,” he said. “We’re going to keep pushing as long as we can. And we’re going to keep looking for solutions until we find something that works.”

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Merger Creates Internet Company Serving Rural Areas in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma

Two Internet service providers are merging to cover a larger area of Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, but an expert in community broadband networks cautions that consolidation can often hurt customer service.

The two former companies – 360 Communications of Durant, Oklahoma, and 903 Broadband of Leonard, Texas – were roughly the same size, which means the combination is a doubling in size for both. Upon the merger in August that became 360 Broadband, the new company had nearly 16,000 subscribers and 88 employees across 10,000 square miles and 30 counties: 20 in Oklahoma, six in Texas, and four in Arkansas. The company’s services are provided via a hybrid network containing both fiber elements and almost 250 wireless towers.

Drew Beverage, chief strategy officer for 360 Broadband, said it seemed smart to combine the two companies for funding opportunities.

“At the federal level, at the state level, it makes sense for the two companies to come together to combine resources to be able to play in that arena,” he told the Daily Yonder. “And not only provide better customer service, give us better options to be able to go after some of that federal money to build out more resources to build out more rural space. And we’re talking about the most rural of towns.”

Christopher Mitchell, who runs the Community Broadband Networks program at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said in general, he is concerned about consolidation and the impact it has.

“We worry that local customer service will be harmed, and get worse,” he told the Daily Yonder. He added, however, that he knows there is a high cost of building and operating compared to many other businesses.

“And so, if you don’t have 5,000 to 10,000 subscribers, it can be hard to be able to grow the network in ways that you would like. And so it’s kind of expected, I feel like for some ISPs to grow through mergers,” he said. “As they get bigger and bigger, we really worry about their ability to meet all of the local needs.”

Beverage served on the Oklahoma Rural Broadband Expansion Council for one year. He said making sure people know about the Affordable Connectivity Program is important. The program provides a discount of up to $30 per month toward Internet service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying Tribal lands. 360 Broadband will now cover Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations, Beverage added.

“If nobody has ever been around someone that builds broadband, they might not know that that is offered to them,” he said. “But I think it will have a huge impact for the small communities, the more we build, to be able to get reasonable, reliable broadband service.”

Mitchell said that it’s important for a new company from a merger to try to remain rooted in the communities they are serving.

“We find that when an ISP is rooted in the community, with its technicians, and its ownership – all being within a community – that they tend to make more investments in higher quality services, and they provide better customer service,” he said. “As they spend less time in the community – as they become a larger, more regional ISP – they may not put as much attention into the community that they previously had.”

Beverage said they hired locally from the communities they serve,

“I think it’s a lot of buy-in from our staff, knowing that we’re bringing Internet to their family members, loved ones, the community that they grew up in,” Beverage said. “And so I think there’s a big difference there: the money is not in rural Internet, the money is where there’s a population that can give you a better ROI. But we have a passion to serve rural communities.”

Mitchell said it’s also important to keep in mind who is operating and running a combined company.

“If it’s still a company that is owned by a few people who are deeply committed to providing high-quality internet access, that may still be able to provide a high quality service,” he said. “If it’s owned by private equity, which is focused on a long-term, maximization of profits or even a short-term maximization of profits, then the experience is less likely to go well for the customers.

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Broadband is Critical for Rural Education. $1 Billion Won’t Be Enough To Reach Everyone in Washington State

This story was originally published by the Spokesman-Review.

Last year, Brandi Jo Desautel installed a SpaceX-powered Starlink dish in front of her trailer outside Inchelium, Washington, on the Colville Reservation. At $700 for the equipment and $120 a month for service, it wasn’t cheap. But for her, it was the only option.

Some folks in town have basic internet through their cable provider, but the network doesn’t reach the 32-year-old’s address. A paraprofessional for Inchelium High School, Desautel is out of range of wireless towers, and cellphone coverage is spotty.

Satellite internet allows her to take online classes at night from Spokane Community College, where she is working on a special education degree. It also helps her twin daughters, grade six, do their schoolwork from home.

“Between my school and theirs, we don’t have a choice,” Desautel said.

Even though classes are back in person after the Covid-19 pandemic, access to reliable home internet remains critical both for a well-rounded education and for participation in modern life. Yet some 236,000 Washington households still don’t have broadband-level speeds or internet access at all – many of them in rural areas like where the Desautels live where it is not as profitable for internet providers, according to Federal Communications Commission data.

Over the past few years, Congress has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to expand broadband infrastructure in Washington. Another $1.2 billion will begin rolling out as soon as next year. All of this federal funding will do a lot to bridge the digital divide, but it probably won’t be enough to meet the state’s ambitious goal of universal high-speed internet for every address by 2028.

Accessible by ferry across the Columbia River on the east side of the Colville Reservation, Desautel’s hometown of Inchelium has some of the worst internet coverage in Eastern Washington.

The Starlink Satellite dish at Brandi Jo Desautel’s home is in the front yard as her dog, Rocky, barks at visitors in Inchelium, Washington. (Photo by Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

That should change soon, as the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation are expanding their network with the help of a $48.4 million federal grant to bring fiber and wireless internet to 2,867 unserved Native American households and several hundred businesses and institutions in Inchelium and nearby Keller. The grant is part of the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, a $3 billion fund from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The Spokane Tribe was awarded $16 million for a similar project.

“In the modern world, internet access is critical,” Colville Business Council Chairman Jarred-Michael Erickson said. “It is especially vital for our youth and their education.”

Although she is not an enrolled member, Desautel is a direct descendant of the Colville Tribes. She lives near extended family several miles down a dirt road in an area northwest of town called Seylor Valley, or simply “The Valley” to locals.

Her satellite service cuts out sometimes. Other times, she loses internet because of power outages.

“The hardest part is convincing teachers to let me turn in late work,” Desautel said.

Starlink is becoming more popular among Desautel’s neighbors, but many cannot afford it. It could be a few more years before residents like Desautel get connected.

Growing Up in a Digital ‘Desert’

Nearly every public school building in Washington has broadband ethernet through the state’s K20 Education Network overseen by the Office of Financial Management. The network includes K-12 school districts, public libraries and colleges.

The challenge is to bring that same level of access to students’ homes.

During the pandemic, many school districts used Covid-19 relief money to provide hotspots for students, but much of that funding has run out.

School districts with less internet access tend to adjust homework requirements accordingly.

John Farley, superintendent of Republic School District in Ferry County, said his district accommodates students by not demanding work that would require internet at home.

“We want to make sure they are getting everything they need at school,” he said.

Farley noted the growing importance of technology in education and teaching online literacy and safety. The internet becomes more important as students apply for college or jobs, he said.

Rob Clark, superintendent of Washtucna School District in Adams County, said most of his students live in town, where they have internet access. Washtucna was awarded a Washington state Public Works Board grant in 2021 to build fiber to the homes in town.

“I can’t say it is a real big issue here,” Clark said. “It is a problem, but it is a minor problem.”

Washtucna is a tiny district with about 70 students where everyone can take home a Chromebook. The district is capable of going fully remote again in case of bad weather or another outbreak, Clark said.

Internet levels vary from district to district. Most incorporated towns in Eastern Washington have basic broadband options, and ongoing grant projects will make those options better. The larger challenge will be to reach those in unincorporated areas, especially those who don’t live near major highways.

Margaret Kidwell, supervisor of Spokane Community College’s center in Republic, said some students don’t have internet at all, and a few don’t even have electricity.

With mountainous terrain, many places in Ferry County don’t have cell service, so hotspots don’t work. Kidwell said she knows one person who uses a solar panel just to power their hotspot.

“We live a lot differently up here,” Kidwell said.

Students without internet will do their homework at the college office or the local library. Running start students – high schoolers who take classes for both high school and college credit – do their homework at the high school.

Teri Ford-Dwyer, a business instructor at Spokane Community College in Newport, Washington, teaches students across the state’s three northeastern counties.

She teaches “flex” classes, which are more flexible than hybrid classes by giving students a choice to attend each class in person, live on Zoom or to watch the recorded lectures later. This option is helpful for working parents, like Desautel, and those who live far away with spotty internet.

Bandwidth is a constant struggle for her live video classes. Many students turn off her video feed and just listen. Most students keep their cameras off. If they can’t even use audio, they will type in the chat. Students will often lose connection in the middle of class, then rejoin.

Students miss out when they don’t have fast enough internet to fully participate, Ford-Dwyer said.

They don’t get the same level of interaction with their fellow students during discussions. Peer relationships are an important part of the college experience because students learn from each other.

With the help of the internet and branch centers, SCC is able to reach rural students in a way it couldn’t before. Universal broadband would make it even easier.

“The course offerings are there, but the infrastructure hasn’t caught up,” Ford-Dwyer said.

Michael Gaffney, assistant director of Washington State University Extension, said internet access is not only important for college students, but for adult education and workforce development.

WSU Extension offers a 30-hour remote work certificate. As a prerequisite, some students have had to figure out how to get a high-speed internet connection, Gaffney said.

During the pandemic, WSU introduced 24-hour Wi-Fi at more than 30 extension offices. With the state broadband office, WSU Extension maintains a map of hundreds of free drive-up Wi-Fi locations across Washington.

For some, this remains the only way to access the internet.

Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Education Association, said reliable internet is essential for K-12 students, too.

Although they might get by, growing up without the internet could leave these children behind their urban and suburban counterparts. Faster internet means more capabilities and educational opportunities.

And if a student has to ride a bus for an hour or more and they come home to slow internet, it will take them longer to get their work done.

“This is an equity issue,” Pratt said. “If we don’t have communities with the same access, it’s not equitable. We’ve got to do something as a country to make that equal for all.”

While many school districts lend devices and hot spots, one Whitman County school district has taken an extraordinary step of providing broadband infrastructure directly to its students.

Pullman Public Schools’ technology director, Garren Shannon, spearheaded a $1 million grant from the state broadband office to build four wireless internet radio towers in Pullman, Albion and Tekoa.

The stark divide during the pandemic between students who had quality internet and those who didn’t inspired him to do something about it. The district will distribute 60 specialized Chromebooks in the coming months for students to connect to the closed network.

West Plains companies New J and Peak Industries designed the retractable telescoping towers, which range from 65 to 120 feet tall and can be relocated if needed.

Some questioned why Pullman, home of Washington State University, needs such a program.

“If you drive 2 miles out of town, it is a desert, digitally speaking,” Shannon said.

Albion, just northwest of Pullman, is a part of the school district with cheaper housing and many low-income residents. Town clerk Starr Cathey said students sit outside the library in the winter using the Wi-Fi to do their homework, since the small branch is only open a few hours a week.

Stories like that make Shannon want to expand the pilot program to more districts. That’s why the program also includes Tekoa, a small town with its own school district in the northeast corner of the county with a similar profile to others across the Palouse, whose rolling hills make long-range wireless difficult.

“If we can make it work there, we can make it work anywhere,” Shannon said.

What $1 Billion Can Do

Scott Hutsell, a hands-on Lincoln County commissioner, used a forklift on a recent Monday morning to unload 20,000-foot spools of fiber-optic cable from a delivery truck into a semi-cylindrical warehouse. The spools, along with dozens of pallets of related hardware, are temporarily stored at the fairgrounds in Davenport until contractors pick them up and string the fiber, mostly along telephone poles, across the county.

It’s part of a series of projects from more than $20 million of federal and state grants to connect the county’s eight incorporated communities with fiber. The projects, overseen by the county’s recently created broadband office, also will build redundancy into the network by creating more connections between towns.

Some internet providers are expanding their networks, but the free market falls short in low-density places like Lincoln County.

“No one else was going to come here,” Hutsell said. “They would have been here already if they could make money.”

The model is a little different from other counties, which mostly operate their broadband projects through a port or public utility district. Instead, Lincoln County owns and oversees the project directly. The goal is to run it as a self-sustaining business where internet service providers will be allowed to use the network for a fee, then the county will reinvest the profit to maintain and expand the network.

The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband speed as at least 25 megabits per second for downloading and 3 megabits per second for uploading. This is abbreviated as 25/3 Mbps.

Some say that is too slow.

A household’s bandwidth needs depend on the type of use and the number of people using different devices at the same time. Email and web browsing require minimal bandwidth, video streaming requires a little more, and video conferencing and gaming require a lot.

Washington’s stated goal is for all businesses and residences to have 25/3 Mbps by 2024 and 150/150 Mbps by 2028.

To date, the federal government has invested $705 million for broadband projects in Washington, while the state has invested $68 million. Another $1.23 billion will soon be coming from the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, which was funded by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

That will almost certainly fall short of the state’s goal.

The Washington State Broadband Office estimates it will cost at least another $2.02 billion to serve every remaining location with fiber. Even with BEAD’s 25% match requirement, there is still a gap of nearly $500 million.

Fiber is the preferable broadband technology because it is most reliable and has the most bandwidth. But fiber is harder to deploy over large, low-density areas.

Broken down per household, the average cost across the state for a fiber connection is estimated at $8,825. That average is much higher in rural counties, where it can exceed $20,000.

Hutsell said the state’s goal is ambitious, if not overly optimistic, at least for Lincoln County.

“Getting fiber to every home is going to be tough – not that it isn’t a long-term goal,” Hutsell said. “A certain amount of that is going to have to be fixed wireless.”

The broadband office has drafted a Five-Year Action Plan and Digital Equity Plan to help inform how the BEAD money will be allocated. The office is accepting public comments on these plans through October 15 and 31, respectively.

While the countryside takes much of the focus, urban areas aren’t completely connected either. Urban counties with some of the highest rates of subscription, including King and Spokane, also have the highest number of households without broadband, the Five-Year Action Plan points out. These households are often in lower-income or marginalized neighborhoods.

Spokane County last year formed a regional broadband public development authority called Broadlinc to improve access in rural and urban parts of the county.

There are other barriers for people adopting broadband besides infrastructure. It also needs to be affordable, users need devices, and users need to want to and know how to use the internet.

The federal Affordable Connectivity Program subsidizes $30 a month for low-income families and $75 for households on tribal lands. The program’s future is uncertain, as its funding is set to run out sometime next year, unless Congress renews it.

Some 307,000 Washington households are enrolled in the program, according to the Universal Service Administrative Co. ACP Enrollment and Claims Tracker.

Advocates say broadband should be a universal utility, comparing it to New Deal-era investments in the electric grid, telephone lines and the public road system. Some go so far as to call it a human right.

Michael Gaffney said broadband for everyone is a worthy a goal, even if it isn’t 100% achievable.

“As technology advances, we’ve got to recognize broadband is not a luxury, it is a necessity,” Gaffney said. “It’s like water or electricity.”

Reporting conducted for this article was completed with funding from a Center for Rural Strategies and Grist grant program.

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Per Asper Ad Astra – Rural Southwest Is Slowly Becoming a Destination for Commercial Spacetravel

 On the morning of August 10th, 2023, residents of Elephant Butte, New Mexico (population 1,427), stood in their yards, eyes trained on the sky. They were rewarded with the sights—and sounds—of a spaceplane being launched into sub-orbital space.

“We could hear the rocket ignite—it was right overhead—and you could see the contrail, at first going horizontally and then straight up in the air,” said Kim Skinner, mayor pro tempore of Elephant Butte, in an interview with the Daily Yonder.

The launch was Virgin Galactic’s second commercial flight, known as ‘Galactic 02’, which carried three private passengers as well as the flight crew 55 miles above the earth to the boundaries of space.

Visitors pose for photos outside of Spaceport America. More than 2,500 visitors toured Spaceport America last year. (Photo by Anya Petrone Slepyan)

Galactic 02 launched from Spaceport America, “the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport” according to its website. Located on 18,000 acres of land adjacent to the White Sands Missile Range, the Spaceport is 26 miles from the city of Truth or Consequences (population 6,062), the county seat of Sierra County, and around 25 miles from Elephant Butte.

Low population density is one of the prerequisites for a usable, operational launch site, according to Charles Hurley, the public information officer for Spaceport America. Jeff Bezos’ space tourism company Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX also have launch sites at similarly remote locations.

Following the success of two flights in the summer of 2023, Virgin Galactic announced a schedule of regular monthly commercial spaceflights launching from Spaceport America.

For residents of Sierra County, this announcement fulfills a promise decades in the making, said Bruce Swingle, former city manager of Truth or Consequences, and former county manager for Sierra County.

“I think [the launch] was really a turning point for the community,” Swingle told the Daily Yonder.

The New Mexico state legislature began contemplating plans for a commercial spaceport in the 1980s, though the proposal was not funded until 2005. The $212 million project was paid for primarily by the taxpayers of Sierra County, where the Spaceport is located, and neighboring Doña Ana County. Both counties continue to pay a gross receipts tax to fund the Spaceport, a quarter of which is dedicated to local science, technology, engineering, and math education.

At its core, the Spaceport was “designed to spur economic development,” said Spaceport America Executive Director Scott McLaughlin in a press release.

A new report by the Arrowhead Center at New Mexico State University shows that the project has been effective. In 2022, Spaceport America generated nearly $63 million of economic impact in Sierra County, and over $58 million in Doña Ana County. This includes the creation of hundreds of jobs, construction at the spaceport, and tourism.

Last year, over 2,500 visitors toured the Spaceport through Final Frontier Tours, the official tour operator and merchandiser for the Spaceport. The annual Spaceport America Cup, which is an international rocket-building competition for college students, also brings thousands of visitors each year, according to Hurley. And as Virgin Galactic gears up its operations, a steady stream of space tourists and their entourages are expected to flock to New Mexico.

A tour group looks out at the Spaceport grounds. The FAA-licensed launch complex sits on 18,000 acres of land. (Photo by Anya Petrone Slepyan)

“We’re receiving much more money in return than what we’re paying in gross receipts tax to the Spaceport,” said Swingle. “And in the long term, the Spaceport will continue to grow. I think that what we’re at the Spaceport today is negligible compared to what it’s going to look like in the foreseeable future.”

Much-Needed Economic Boost

This growing source of economic development is welcome in Sierra County, which is one of the poorest in New Mexico. Over a quarter of its residents are living in poverty, according to the US Census Bureau.

And while Virgin Galactic reaches for the stars, Sierra County struggles to provide critical services on the ground. Truth or Consequences, the largest city in the county, has had to temporarily shut down schools and businesses on multiple occasions due to a failing water system that leaks over 40% of the desert town’s potable water into the ground.

For the past decade, tickets for a Virgin Galactic spaceflight cost between $200,000-250,000. Now, tickets go for $450,000 apiece. Space tourists in search of a luxury experience in Sierra County can stay at the Armendaris Ranch, owned by media mogul Ted Turner, for $3500 a night, before taxes and fees.

The irony of this is not lost on Kim Skinner, mayor pro tempore of Elephant Butte. “We have all sorts of things going in Sierra County, from water pipes so broken that you lose 43% of the water pumped, to high-end places like the Armenadaris where you can stay for nearly $4,000 a night,” she said. “It’s from one extreme to the other.”

Though there is also a range of less exclusive options in Truth or Consequences, many tourists end up opting for Las Cruces’ Encanto Hotel, which partners with the Spaceport.

According to the economic impact study, the Spaceport generated over 9,000 visitor-days (days visitors spent in the area) in 2022. But 75% of those visitor-days were spent in Doña Ana County, which is home to Las Cruces, New Mexico’s second-largest city.

“Tourists want to go where the money is, and that’s Las Cruces,” said Susan Curry, the office manager for the Sierra County Chamber of Commerce.

Skinner is also the chairperson of the Sierra County Government Recreation and Tourism Board. She said that Sierra County may not be the right destination for everyone, but that they still hope to attract more Spaceport visitors who are interested in the abundant natural resources the county has to offer. And a nearly 20% increase in the county’s annual lodgers tax revenue shows that the strategy is working.

“We don’t have all the shopping; we don’t have all the bells and whistles,” Skinner said. “But if you’re a person who would really like to hike or bike, or RV up in the mountains, this is the place for you.”

Building for the Future

Although Sierra County businesses hope to continue to grow local tourism, other types of economic development stemming from the Spaceport have proven even more fruitful, according to former Sierra County manager Bruce Swingle.

He cites unprecedented private investment in the community, and new public-private partnerships designed to address local problems, from a housing shortage to poor internet connectivity.

“We are catching up with the rest of the world with our infrastructure, our broadband, our utilities, our roads,” Swingle said. “And it’s not just growth, it’s smart growth.”

Swingle hopes these improvements will help the community attract a new generation of professionals, from aerospace workers to hospital staff.

Attracting young people is critical to the future of the community, Skinner said.

“One of the things we’re concerned about is that our kids grow up, go to college, and move away because there are no jobs to keep them here. And you see that in rural communities all over the country,” she said. “So we’re really blessed to have the Spaceport here, doing what it’s trying to do.”

According to Hurley, the Spaceport is just one element of New Mexico’s developing “Space Valley,” stretching from the research complex at Los Alamos down to the aerospace department at the University of Texas at El Paso.  Other important space-related sites include Sandia National Laboratories, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, White Sands Missile Range, and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

As New Mexico grows its space-centered economy, Bruce Swingle is adamant that Sierra County will continue to benefit.

“It’s amazing to see the synergy that is going into our community right now,” Swingle said. “And Spaceport is a part of that, Virgin Galactic and private investment are a part of that. It’s just a really good time to be in Sierra County and watch this happen.”

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