Policy Brief: Bolstering Rural Broadband Spurs Economic Development of Smaller Towns


Jessica Epley, vice president–regulatory & external affairs for Ziply Fiber, writes about the need to expand broadband infrastructure in rural areas.

Share this article!

No one should be forced to live, work or run their business in a big city just to have fast, reliable internet.

That belief is the driving force behind Ziply Fiber’s aggressive fiber-optic expansion efforts in Oregon since we opened just 20 months ago. For decades, the only choice in cities like Coquille, Detroit, Joseph, Mill City and dozens more has been DSL or some similarly outdated technology. But that is changing, and fast. Since we put our first shovel in the ground in the summer of 2020, we have seen firsthand the monumental impact that adding broadband to a rural community can have on the population.

Rural Americans are 10 times more likely to lack broadband access than their urban counterparts — a disparity exacerbated by the pandemic, when suddenly the ability to work, go to school online, see a doctor and much more was simply impossible without broadband access.

The good news is that when fiber-based broadband connectivity is added to a community, property values increase by a minimum of 3%. For cities themselves, it’s an emergency response game-changer. And for businesses, the value is transformative. Long manual processes now take mere minutes even with massive file sizes. Businesses can leverage the latest software for everything from retail inventory projections to mining operations safety controls, to remote crop irrigation maximizing both yield and water conservation. All businesses benefit from broadband deployment where it’s never been before.

Access to fast, reliable broadband is one of the single biggest decisions any city can make when it comes to positively impacting economic development today. Its absence dissuades modern companies — and their workforce with their disposable income — to locate to a town. Simply put, broadband that was once considered a luxury we now know is a prerequisite for modern living, regardless of a person’s ZIP code.

Couple that modern need for fast, reliable connectivity with the very real urban/rural digital divide and it is understandable why many civic leaders are considering municipal broadband networks. Rural America’s digital divide exists, in part, because it’s not economical for ISPs to lay fiber and provide broadband in sparsely populated areas.

But the lack of broadband access has reached an inflection point on the national stage. In the coming months, federal and state governments will unleash billions of dollars to help fund the construction of broadband in areas (mainly rural ones) where it currently does not exist. And when broadband comes, people, businesses and economic development have a reason to follow.

So what should municipalities do when this money becomes available?

Well, contrary to what one might expect me to say…don’t have a private company do it all. And don’t go it alone, either. Instead, develop a public/private partnership and use each other’s strengths to benefit everyone. Public infrastructure dollars must be used in the smartest way possible to maximize every dollar for the benefit of the most people.

I can point to literally a dozen examples of public/private partnerships that have facilitated deploying fiber farther and faster than either entity could do on its own. The cost savings in the six and seven figures to public entities, many of which were previously considering municipally run networks, was logical because:

• We are the local phone company in these areas, with a vast, legacy network in place and already connected to virtually every single home or business. Upgrading an existing network to fiber can be done at a fraction of the cost of building new infrastructure from scratch and in a fraction of the time.

• Cities are great at many things, but most are not staffed with fiber-optic technicians, network engineers, customer service specialists or operations teams ready to respond to a 2 a.m. call when a tree comes down and knocks out the internet.

• Private companies are already investing in future-proofing technologies. While most families today top out at needing “Gig-speed” (1 gigabit/second) capacity, we’ve already rolled out 2-gig and 5-gig residential plans for those who need or want it. We believe in investing to stay ahead of the needs of customers and being prepared for what’s next, and that’s critical to getting communities out of this digital divide and staying out.

We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As a society, we are borrowing billions and trillions of dollars against future generations. It’s incumbent upon us to invest in infrastructure in rural markets today that future generations can use without having to reinvest in just a few years because we didn’t spend wisely today.

Jessica Epley is vice president–regulatory & external affairs for Ziply Fiber, which acquired the Northwest operations of Frontier Communications in 2020.

To subscribe to Oregon Business, click here