Bringing Broadband to the Unconnected

By Amina Fazlullah, Mozilla Tech Policy Fellow

Just over the Nevada border from Death Valley, deep in an old Silver State mining district, an innovative partnership between, schools, government, an electric utility, and broadband providers is successfully building a fiber-based network to ensure that rural schools and community residents have access to robust broadband.

Beatty’s Main Street | Adam Kliczek, http://zatrzymujeczas.pl (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

By the spring of 2018, the 1,000-resident town of Beatty, Nevada will be the first in the state to be connected to the Internet through an all-fiber network co-located along existing electricity lines. For the students at Beatty High School this means access to robust digital resources, and soon, high-speed access at home to ensure that those resources are available after school as well. For Valley Electric, the recent recipient of a Cornerstone Award at the Broadband Communities 2017 Summit, it means success in their initial effort to flood the Great Basin with broadband.

In small towns and cities and in rural, tribal, and urban underserved communities there is a growing consensus that broadband is as critical to residents as water and electricity. Take a deeper look at the broadband infrastructure in these communities you’ll see that it’s a struggle just to get online. Most folks are faced with either no Internet access at all or extremely slow access, which severely limits economic development, access to modern medicine and healthcare, as well as opportunities for civic, cultural, and educational engagement.

But even if community leaders understand the importance of broadband, many towns just can’t attract traditional broadband providers to fully connect their communities. Moreover, after a community gains high-speed access to the Internet, there will still be vulnerable residents who will need help to fully utilize broadband resources. Communities can’t just invest in the the network, they must also invest in continuing cost support, equipment, training, and tech support for these hardest-to-reach individuals.

In Minnesota and Colorado, the digital inclusion trailblazer PCs for People works to ensure that low-income individuals have access to computers. Broadband service was already offered in the communities that PCs for People serves; however, without access to low-cost computers and ongoing trusted support, these users had remained offline.

To bring these hard-to-reach communities the benefits of broadband Internet, we must commit to invest in robust broadband infrastructure and long-term support for digital inclusion efforts.

Mozilla is dedicated to ensuring universal access to a healthy, open, and fair Internet. This means identifying creative technical and funding solutions around infrastructure deployment, exploring policies that will help lower the cost of access, ensuring that applications are developed with the most vulnerable users in mind, promoting a fair and open Internet, and identifying and highlighting the good work of digital inclusion organizations around the world. I joined Mozilla to help further this work.

Achieving these goals also means amplifying the amazing stories of communities — like Beatty — that are now connected to the global digital dialogue provided by the Internet due to the hard work of folks on the ground, at anchor institutions, in community organizations, as well as within government and industry.

The tireless efforts of these community and industry leaders have provided answers for the questions that often stymie those struggling to get their communities robust access to the Internet:

  • How does access to broadband impact the social and economic problems that communities are facing?
  • What are the different approaches to broadband deployment in urban underserved, rural, tribal, and topographically difficult to reach locations?
  • What partners do we need to deploy, maintain, and upgrade infrastructure, and to ensure that individuals have the continuing support they need to fully benefit from access to the Internet?
  • Which policies hinder deployment and access to broadband?
  • Which policies spur deployment and ensure fair, affordable and open access?
  • Who are the best partners to support broadband adoption and digital inclusion?
  • How do we design policies that ensure continuing support for digital inclusion efforts as technology and applications change?

As a Mozilla Tech Policy Fellow, I hope to capture, document, and disseminate these innovative solutions to broadband deployment, adoption, and digital inclusion in underserved and hard to serve communities. We will work to ensure that these lessons can bring hope and knowledge to distressed communities that are working hard to build fair, affordable, and open access to the Internet and all that it offers for their residents.