For many of us, we take our connectivity to the internet for granted because, for the most part, we can. A broadband or better connection is there reliably in our homes, at our workplace, and even on our phones.
But that connectivity isn’t universal. The farther one travels from cities, access often fades.
According to a 2016 Federal Communications Commission report, 39 percent of rural areas in America lack access to an internet connection that offers speeds of at least 25 megabits per second, the FCC’s minimum standard for broadband. In the same regard, 23 percent of school districts, serving about 21 million students, don’t have internet access of sufficient bandwidth to meet current needs for digital learning, according to Education Superhighway, a nonprofit advocate for online learning opportunities.
The roll-out to rural areas has been slow chiefly because internet service providers say they can’t financially justify extending service to areas where potential customers are thinly dispersed.
That was the experience of Jacob Kukuk, who moved from Arlington up Highway 530 to the Swede Heaven neighborhood west of Darrington, only to discover inadequate or unaffordable options for internet service. Kukuk, with a background in software and technology, began talking with fellow Stillaguamish River Valley residents about setting up their own broadband network, he told The Herald’s Kari Bray earlier this week.
The concept has worked elsewhere, including a similar operation on Orcas Island’s Doe Bay, Kukuk said. The idea is to set up a nonprofit organization that will raise funding to install the infrastructure, then offer internet services along the Stillaguamish Valley from Arlington Heights east to Darrington and the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Nation.
Connecting to fiber-optic service in Arlington, the system would send a connection to transmission towers, then to individual receivers at homes, businesses and elsewhere. Kukuk even envisions establishing emergency stations along the Whitehorse Trail between Arlington and Darrington where there often is no cellular service, as well as Wi-Fi service for Darrington’s Bluegrass Music Park.
The system, Kukuk said, will be able to offer reasonably priced service with speeds of 50 megabits per second, twice the FCC standard for broadband.
Kukuk likens the operation to a credit union, just substituting internet for banking services. The nonprofit cooperative, Darrington Internet Users Association, is owned by its members, who have recently selected a five-member board of directors and elected Kukuk as president.
Kukuk figures on startup costs of about $200,000. He’s already collected $150 memberships from 25 people and support from Fire District 24, which sees the service as a crucial backup for its communications throughout the district, Kukuk said. The nonprofit also is working on funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural connectivity grant.
But even as Stilly Valley residents look to establish their own broadband service, support for federal assistance for rural internet systems may be waning. Wired magazine reported earlier this summer about potential changes to the FCC’s rules regarding rural internet standards.
During the Obama administration, the FCC raised its definition of broadband from 4 mps to 25 mps. Now under Republican control, the FCC is considering a new rule-making process that would ease that standard and allow mobile internet connections to be considered adequate coverage for rural areas, Wired reported.
Lowering the standard and expecting rural customers to rely on expensive cellular data plans takes the effort to expand rural connectivity in the wrong direction.
At the same time, there’s criticism of a program that provides subsidies for internet service to low-income households. The needs-based program provides assistance of $9.25 a month for broadband and mobile internet access. But the program has been beset by fraud, The Hill reported Thursday, with at least two U.S. senators suggesting the Lifeline program lose all or part of its funding.
That could be an opportunity for efforts like Kukuk’s. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, has suggested that some of Lifeline’s funding instead be diverted to programs focused on expanding rural internet access.
There’s still a place for Lifeline’s subsidies, which are available to low-income families, regardless of region, but there’s a great need, as well, for more rural connectivity.
Kukuk is confident that the Darrington Internet Users Association should be connecting its members to the internet within a year. He then hopes it’s used as a model for other rural communities.
Increasingly, we rely on quick and reliable internet connections for much each day, at our businesses, at our schools and in our daily lives. It’s key to the education of our children, the operation of our businesses, our daily commerce, our communication with family and friends and the quality of life at home.
And it’s a necessity wherever one lives.