An Urban's Rural View

The Urban-Rural Internet Gap is About to Widen

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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The wireless telecommunications technology known as 5G is coming, and that's good news: It's up to 20 times faster than 4G. The bad news is that China is many years ahead of the United States in preparing for 5G. The worse news, for farmers and ranchers at least, is that the countryside has been slow to get even 4G wireless internet service -- and will lag the cities in 5G for a long time as well.

Trailing China matters because 5G will ultimately transform manufacturing and warfare, among many other things. Trailing the cities matters because 5G could play a critical role in enabling farmers to make the most of precision agriculture. It could also improve rural health care by enabling telemedicine and slow rural depopulation by allowing more country folk to telecommute.

Given the importance of 5G to economic competitiveness and military capability, it's surprising that China's bold investments in the technology haven't gotten Washington's attention. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first space satellite, in 1957, the U.S. responded with a massive and eventually successful commitment to winning the space race. By contrast, our government almost seems not to care that China has vastly outdone us in building the dense web of wireless sites 5G will require. According to a recent report, they now have 5.3 sites for every 10 miles. We have 0.4. (…)

It's less baffling that there's an urban-rural gap in high-speed internet. Infrastructure is always slower in coming to the countryside; serving tiny populations spread over vast geographies is expensive, sometimes prohibitively so. Often it can only be made economical through generous federal financial support, as was the case with rural electrification.

The Trump administration thinks there's another way. Under its just-unveiled American Broadband Initiative, private businesses and state and local governments would do most of the high-speed internet infrastructure investing. Uncle Sam would stimulate these investments by cutting regulation and red tape for rural projects, allowing greater use of federal land and assets for private infrastructure and by providing a little seed money. (…) USDA will spend $600 million on pilot projects aimed at serving as catalysts to private-sector investments.

The 62-page document announcing ABI paints a dreary picture of the urban-rural internet gap. In urban areas, only 2% of Americans lacked access to fixed land-based internet. In rural America, 30% did. More than 90% of urbanites had access to 4G wireless internet, while only 70% of rural Americans did. And 73% of urban Americans 15 and older use an internet-enabled smartphone compared with less than 64% of their country cousins.

If anything, these statistics understate the problem. The fixed land-based internet in the country is often DSL, whereas in the cities it's increasingly fiber cable, which is much faster. The satellite internet some rural Americans rely on can also be slow. There are even nooks and crannies of the countryside with no internet availability -- and the ABI report admits the government doesn't know where all of them are. The Federal Communications Committee's maps are based on sometimes-deceptive reports from internet-service providers.

One of the ABI's self-proclaimed goals is to narrow the gap while serving as a good steward of taxpayer funds. That's commendable; with the government's deficits running near a trillion dollars a year, good stewardship is in order. But when it comes to spending on infrastructure, there's such a thing as being too good a steward. These expenditures are investments. They will produce a return in the form of a more productive economy. With interest rates still at relatively low levels, now is the time to make them.

Government will have to make more of these investments than ABI admits. Cutting red tape will help but in many cases it's simple distance and population sparsity, not clumsy regulations and permitting procedures, that keeps private investors away.

That said, the American Broadband Initiative includes some useful measures that will help narrow the urban-rural internet gap. Some 25 agencies are participating and the report lays out specific action items for many of them. These range from developing a common cross-agency permit application form (General Services Administration) to evaluating the economic benefits of high-speed internet for precision agriculture (USDA). It's good to see the government acknowledging the gap and proposing to do something about it, even if its proposal doesn't go far enough.

Now how about an initiative to close the China-U.S. 5G gap?

Urban Lehner can be reached at



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3/6/2019 | 11:39 AM CST
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