Closing the Broadband Divide – Connecting Rural Communities

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Connecting Rural Communities: Q&A with FiberLight’s Lance Steckel

It’s no secret that access to high-speed internet is critical for connecting us in today’s modern world, yet a shocking number of people in the United States lack broadband access. FCC data shows that currently only 44 percent of US residents have access to fiber networks, and in Texas nearly 56 percent of households have no broadband access. FiberLight works to close the broadband divide by going into rural communities – connecting towers and cities where other telecommunications companies simply won’t go. To learn more about how FiberLight is providing this critical access to rural communities, we sat down with Lance Steckel, FiberLight’s Director of FInance to discuss the business decision to work in these areas and the value it provides.

FiberLight: What is driving FiberLight into these rural communities?

Lance:

From an operational perspective, we are chasing the 5G push as it moves out of major NFL cities into tier two and tier three markets. We are pushing to enable access with the smaller rural providers, where it is not economically viable to build fiber completely through a rural area. As a key infrastructure provider, FiberLight brings the core connectivity to these rural communities by partnering with wireless providers. These wireless providers can then cover these rural folks and bring them in to help bridge the broadband divide and enable high speed access to people in rural areas to run businesses.

When you look at the different ways COVID has impacted business, one thing that stands out is that with more flexibility for remote work, more people have moved out of larger cities, into rural areas. So broadband is crucial and our ability to deliver to those providers is a big piece of enabling the digital economy.

FiberLight: Why is it important for people in rural communities to have broadband access?

Lance:

For starters, broadband supports next-generation learning and education. By connecting schools in rural areas, we are supporting digital learning. The majority of school kids today carry Chromebooks versus textbooks, so connectivity is more critical than ever. Another important industry we support is healthcare. Broadband access supports everything from MRI imaging at rural hospitals to their ability to connect with Telemedicine patients. In many of these communities, they do not have access to certain specialists, but broadband enables patients in rural areas to connect with specialists in the city. The high-speed capacity we deliver to these rural hospitals can truly enable a heart surgeon to read something from an image, thousands of miles away and help treat patients in rural areas.

Bridging the Digital Divide

FiberLight: Would you say that broadband is an essential service for people in rural communities? 

Lance:

In today’s economy, broadband is definitely an essential service. Take education and the principle of “No child left behind.” Digital connectivity is an integral part of the learning process because of the way children learn today – from online education-based applications, to shared documents for group projects and, playing games to learn everything from phonics to science. I have elementary kids that play games all night long to learn math. So the ability to connect for kids to do their homework is critical.

And then there is healthcare. Rising healthcare costs, a doctor shortage, and the fact that we have seen a lot of rural hospitals closing means that telemedicine is a literal lifeline in rural areas. FiberLight’s ability to offer broadband in rural areas gives the people in these communities access to Telemedicine and connects them with specialists in regional hospitals in larger markets – enabling them to access quality care without having to travel long distances, and often saving critical time when seeking treatment.

Oftentimes, we will provide connectivity for the local governments – this can include connecting to the fire department, to the police, and the counties as well. FiberLight provides the core infrastructure that connects these essential services.

FiberLight: Can you describe a scenario where FiberLight goes into a rural community and sets up a dark fiber/broadband network?

Lance:

When FiberLight goes into a rural community and sets up a dark fiber or broadband network we may begin by connecting to all the schools with a fiber optic network.  Once the schools are connected, we will go back and bring connectivity to the fire department and the police.  This creates an overlay for the local government connection.  Next we can overlay the hospitals, the banks, and other vital services. No matter how we start in a rural community, it usually develops and builds. There is not just one vertical that we specifically go after in these rural areas.

Once the infrastructure is in place, there are several different layers, even to the wireless internet service providers, or WISPs. There might be a very localized, rural internet service provider that puts in a few towers for a nearby town, and they can build off of our backbone and then they can take it into each individual home for expanded coverage.

Some of these communities may even be looking at subsidized programs for their communities. And once our core infrastructure is in place, there are additional layers that come in on top of that. With the local funding or with federal funding, FiberLight can expand free broadband access once we put that core infrastructure in place.

Taking Texas to the Next-Generation with 5G

FiberLight: What steps can rural communities take to access next-generation broadband access? 

Lance:

FiberLight is happy to work with rural communities to help bridge the broadband gap and be a core part of delivering a next-generation telecommunications network. We are proud to partner with economic development agencies and local governments, and are actively calling into underserved communities that are working hard to attract new businesses, build industrial facilities and create new job opportunities. To support economic growth in rural communities, FiberLight can help to discover sources of available funding, establish partnership opportunities and deliver the technology needed to close that digital divide.

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