‘You’re not connected to the internet’ is a frustrating message that, unfortunately, many people in rural areas across the world have become used to. A 2020 report published by the Office of Communications, the regulatory body for telecommunications and broadcasting in the UK, showed that 1.5 million homes—most of which are located in rural areas— still don’t have internet access.
As the world grows increasingly digitally dependent, ensuring equitable internet access has never been more important. Broadband services are key to making internet inequality a thing of the past. This article examines the prospects, opportunities, and challenges of rural broadband.
Rural Broadband Opportunities
Broadband services are gradually extending to more remote communities in delivering new technologies and solutions to ensure everyone can enjoy reliable, high-speed internet. In the UK, for example, providers like Wave Internet specialize in offering network solutions to countryside locations and remote homes.
Rural broadband services break down time and distance barriers, so residents can participate in social and economic activities that extend far beyond their geographic location. Here are some of the potential opportunities and benefits reliable broadband services can offer to rural areas:
With broadband internet, farmers in rural areas can take advantage of new advancements in farming technology. From smart sensors that can monitor weather conditions to crop management devices and software that can collect crop health data, a broadband connection can provide farmers with solutions to time-consuming daily tasks.
Here are some of the other present-day technologies that farmers can use to increase the quantity and quality of their yield and optimize human labor:
- Precision farming: IoT devices that can measure data from the environment and crops with laser accuracy can help make farming more controlled and precise. Farmers can give cattle and crops the exact treatment they require, selectively apply fertilizer and pesticides, and anticipate each crop’s needs. Precision farming also increases sustainability, improves yields, reduces waste, and minimizes expenses.
- Automated greenhouses: Smart greenhouses use sensors that collect accurate, real-time data on factors such as humidity, soil condition, temperature, lighting, and water. The greenhouse’s automation systems then intervene to ensure that the environmental parameters match the requirements of the crop.
- Livestock management: Sensors can also be attached to cattle and other farm animals to monitor their health and physical location. With the data from these sensors, the farmers can then identify any sick animals and separate them from the herd to prevent contamination.
One of the biggest hurdles to smart farming is the unreliable internet infrastructure in most rural areas. Broadband can help ensure reliable internet connection regardless of bad weather conditions or the number of agricultural facilities involved.
According to a 2020 report from The Brookings Institution, most rural small businesses require two essential resources: capital and broadband connection. This shouldn’t be the case. A reliable broadband connection allows rural small business owners access to new and bigger markets. They also gain access to more resources, partners, suppliers, and solutions that can help them increase their reach, sales, and profits.
With a robust broadband connection, rural businesses can set up and manage e-commerce stores. E-commerce is highly beneficial to farmers and producers, in particular. With their own online stores, farmers can sell their crops directly to consumers—eliminating the costs and delays associated with intermediaries who purchase farm products at dirt-cheap prices and then sell them with outrageous markups. This is also beneficial to urban consumers, as they get more options at better prices.
Access To Essential Services
The digital divide isn’t just a minor inconvenience, it’s also a serious roadblock to essential services that directly affect a person’s health, wellbeing, and future opportunities. Broadband connectivity can help bridge the gap in the following areas:
- Healthcare: Telehealth and telemedicine services can help ensure faster appointments and improved preventative care. Patients can also avoid transportation costs to distant hospitals and get timely medical assistance for non-emergency issues and concerns.
- Education and literacy: According to a study from Michigan State University, slow or limited internet access may cause students to fall behind academically. The same study showed that students that have broadband access have significantly higher digital skills—a strong predictor of performance on standardized tests.
- Government services: Reliable broadband services make it easier for rural residents to interact with government agencies and access public services.
Rural Broadband Challenges
Some of the biggest challenges that large internet service providers have encountered when expanding their network infrastructure in rural locations are the following.
- Lower Subscriber Density
Small towns usually mean small populations. A rural broadband provider’s potential clientele is relatively small. Even if they wanted to expand, they can’t plan for large investments in infrastructure and network development because of the small market where they operate. They can’t plan to build towers that can serve 300,000 people if an optimistic population estimate is 20,000 at most.
- High Infrastructure Cost
Infrastructure costs are one of the top barriers to deploying broadband in rural areas. As mentioned above, rural locations usually have smaller markets. This means that there are fewer customers to absorb the fixed costs associated with installing broadband infrastructure.
- Natural Physical Barriers
Natural and physical barriers make setting up a broadband network in a rural area particularly challenging. For example, a hill or mountain can obstruct the ‘line of sight’ between the signal tower or relay and the user’s access point.
Rough terrain, forests, lakes, and rivers can also interfere with the broadband signal. Even plants and thick shrubs can cause interference. Plants and trees contain a lot of water aside from those caught on their leaves after a rainfall. Technical experts on broadband technology say that water is one of the principal causes of signal interruption.
With the opportunities and benefits that reliable broadband connectivity can bring, expanding to rural areas isn’t just an investment in essential infrastructure, it’s also an investment in the country’s future. Rural broadband internet providers need to watch out for challenges such as natural physical barriers, high infrastructure costs, and lower subscriber density. However, the rural expansion offers endless opportunities, especially when it comes to smart farming, small-town business, and essential services.