Opinion | Biden gave $90 billion to red America. The thank-you went to spam.

Not long after my wife and I bought a farm in the Virginia countryside, we decided to stream a movie with our kids. This was a perilous undertaking.

With internet download speeds of no more than 15 megabits per second in our home compared with speeds of 100 or even 1,000 mbps in the city the internet sputtered and stalled, even on a good day. And this was not a good day. Early in the film, the TV screen froze, then went blank. We checked our phones and laptops: no internet connection. I called the service provider (on my copper-wire landline) to report the outage, the latest of several, and got a recorded message saying the office was closed for the weekend. The internet didnt come back on for days this time, and then only intermittently.

Readers with teenagers will immediately recognize the gravity of this crisis. I tried to think of the outage as one of the charms of rural life, a forced opportunity to unplug, to talk, to read. More charming was the apologetic note days later from the service provider, which explained that the outage had been caused by wildlife.

This unidentified animal a chipmunk? a bear? had apparently gnawed, clawed or pecked a cable at the access point across the valley, one of several signal repeaters the company hangs in local trees. As a result, water got into the electronics and fried them. Further complicating matters, the tree that your specific access point is located in has been rotting for years, and its reaching a point where our climbers are not really comfortable with it anymore unless its a very calm day.

How did it come to be that my familys connection to the outside world hung literally by a thread, in this case an animal-mauled wire strung up a rotted tree? The provider attributed the problems to the remote area and the aging/poor infrastructure. It went on: The reason it hasnt been replaced is partly because, until lately, it worked, and because of the relatively small number of customers serviced by this access point, which has put it at the bottom of the list for being improved.

Poor infrastructure, small number of customers, bottom of the list: That is the story of rural broadband in the United States.

For me, the lack of high-speed internet was just an annoyance. But there was a workaround: I got on the waiting list for Elon Musks satellite-based Starlink, then held my nose and paid the Twitter-killing billionaire $600 for the equipment and $120 a month for dependable internet service.

But the situation is much more than an annoyance for the 7 million U.S. households that still do not have access to broadband internet 90 percent of them in rural areas. Many times that number are underserved, with speeds below 100 mbps, or have high-speed broadband infrastructure but cant afford service. For these tens of millions of rural residents without a tether to the Information Age, telemedicine, distance learning, telework and e-commerce are all but impossible.

In Rappahannock County, where my farm is, even telephone calls are problematic without high-speed internet. Cellular coverage is spotty, and the old landlines frequently go out when it rains, leaving people entirely isolated. County supervisors told me of an elderly resident with a medical emergency who had no internet service and no dial tone on their landline, so they had to drive to a place where there was cellular reception just to dial 911.

Likewise, distance learning during the pandemic was excruciating in Rappahannock, where most of the 900 public school students lacked reliable internet. Parents would idle their cars in the county librarys parking lot after hours so their children could use the librarys WiFi to send in homework. Web access was so limited during those times that one of the local internet service providers asked customers to ration their internet usage.

But all this is about to change in Rappahannock and in the rest of rural America.

The Biden administration has launched the most ambitious federal program for rural areas since rural electrification. Back in the 1930s, only 1 in 10 farms had electricity. Thanks to New Deal legislation, rural electricity became universal by the mid-1950s. Now, Biden-era programs are funneling $90 billion into high-speed internet over 10 years, with the goal of having universal broadband (defined as 100 mbps download speed and 20 mbps upload) by 2030.

The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, for example, devoted $65 billion to the task, including $42 billion for the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program. Among other pieces of legislation, the 2021 American Rescue Plan provided an additional $10 billion that states could use for high-speed internet.

President Biden probably wont be getting much thanks from the rural beneficiaries of his programs; nearly three-quarters of those in rural precincts voted for Donald Trump in 2020. Some Republican lawmakers condemned these bills as socialism and even applied the label traitor to those who supported the infrastructure bill. But the massive rural infusion makes good on Bidens promise to be a president for everybody, as he put it to a gathering of House Democrats this month. A lot of these things are happening in red states, but the Americans need help, he said.

Certainly, rural America needs all the help it can get. Eighty-five percent of counties with persistent poverty in the United States are rural. Rural areas have lower rates of college education, lower achievement among K-12 students and an older, less healthy population with lower life expectancy. Rural areas have been declining in population for years, with the exception of those near metropolitan areas, from which some residents fled during the pandemic. The affordable housing crisis, often perceived as an urban problem, is just as pressing in rural areas.

Since the Great Recession in 2008, employment and labor participation, even before covid-19 hit, had not been back to the pre-2008 levels, and they still arent, says Tony Pipa, a researcher in rural policy at the Brookings Institution. In urban and suburban areas, not only have they recovered, but they have grown and sometimes grown significantly.

The lack of internet access makes rural areas fall further and further behind. While broadband infrastructure is universal in cities and suburbs, its absent in roughly 20 percent of rural and tribal areas, even by a conservative estimate. Eliminating that gap could help pull rural America from its depression.

For rural Americans, it really connects them in a way that they have never been connected before, said Molly Ritner, a White House policy adviser who works on broadband implementation. Not only is it giving them access to telehealth, but its giving people access to telehealth who might be 2 hours from a hospital. Its giving folks access to school who might be two hours from a community college instead of 15 minutes.

Rappahannock, an agrarian county of just 7,300 souls, is in some ways atypical because of its wealthy weekenders and tourists. But it also has deep poverty (most public school students qualify for free lunch) and many of the rural ills: no pharmacy, no hospital, only one general practitioner, no higher education, and an aging population (29 percent of residents are over 65). When people think of this county, they think of the Inn at Little Washington, Debbie Donehey, chair of the county board of supervisors, remarked over lunch at one of the elite inns restaurants, Patty Os Cafe. But we have more than 300 families supported by the food pantry just around the corner.

Villages in the county have broadband, but when it looked several years ago into extending it over some 300 miles of roads to the remaining 2,000 households, it found the cost would be about $25 million a nonstarter for a local government whose entire annual operating budget is $30 million. Before the pandemic, Rappahannock asked for bids from internet service providers and it got none.

It was a classic market failure. But the billions coming from the federal government changed all that. In 2021, Rappahannock was invited to be part of an eight-county consortium in the Shenandoah Valley in which a private-equity-funded service provider, All Points Broadband, would work with electric utilities to deliver universal broadband by mid-2025 using funds from the American Rescue Plan.

Because of the federal funds, supplemented by state funds, it would cost the county just $5.9 million in seed money. A local philanthropist and foundation donated $4.5 million of that, and the county used unspent covid relief funds for the rest. Its the best deal we ever could have found, and only because of massive subsidies, argues Keir Whitson, the supervisor boards vice chair.

Even then, two of the five county supervisors raised objections. They forced the county to miss its payment to All Points Broadband by boycotting the vote to approve the funds. Rappahannock now finds itself last in line among the eight counties for broadband installation, a situation All Points Broadbands chief, Jimmy Carr, told me is dependent on a number of factors.

In markets already served by broadband, there are typically at least 30 homes per mile, Carr said, but in areas where his company works, there are fewer than 10. All Points will connect 42,000 unserved households and businesses in the eight counties, hanging some 3,100 miles of fiber from some 70,000 utility poles. But, two years into the project, it hasnt installed a single foot of fiber yet. First, it has to go through the laborious task of working with utilities to upgrade thousands of poles.

This is not glamorous work. I spent a couple hours this week watching a crew in Stuarts Draft, west of Charlottesville, replace a pole. It took two bucket trucks, a third with a giant auger and a crew of six men a whole morning to do the job. They donned thick protective gear, hung insulation over the wires and pole, removed a transformer, set aside live power lines carrying a total of 22,860 volts, then hoisted the new pole with a crane, placing it into the eight-foot hole. And all that was just to replace a 45-foot pole with a 50-foot pole so that the fiber-optic cable will have enough ground clearance.

With thousands of poles to upgrade or replace, its easy to see why All Points official Tom Innes told me itll be tight to meet the companys promised completion date of July 2025. Impossible is more like it. Even after the eventual completion, it will take another year or so to hook up each home.

When its done, the fiber-optic cable, just half an inch in diameter, will bring speeds up to 1 gigabit per second, upload and download. Ultimately, those same cables will be able to carry data to homes at a breathtaking 10 gbps. But theres much that could go wrong between now and then.

At the moment, theres a squabble between All Points and one of the electric utilities over who will pay for pole upgrades. Then there will be the challenge of getting customers, particularly the old and the poor, to pay for the new service. All Points will guarantee service for just $30 a month at first for low-income customers. But its not at all clear that such pricing can be continued, or that the overall network can be maintained, without ongoing federal subsidies which have not been promised. The operating costs will be higher than in cities and suburbs. All Points will need more service techs, vans and warehouse facilities to cover the greater distances.

What you dont want to do is hook folks up and then three years later, the ISP that hooked folks up is cutting back their services and then youre in the same place you were, Brookingss Pipa warns. Current programs, he says, wont be enough to reach and maintain universal broadband.

From my view on the farm, such potential problems are a long way off. Theres currently no dial tone on my landline; the incoming telephone wire dangles so low over a field that I could touch it. Theres no cellular signal, either. A member of the Rappahannock Broadband Authority, Margaret Bond, explained that this is in part because the county (understandably) resists massive, ugly cell towers on its scenic mountaintops.

Eventually, fiber-optic broadband will allow wireless carriers to boost their signals. But for now, my only hope for connectivity runs through the unstable conduit of Elon Musk. After eight months on Starlinks waiting list, I was approved for service, though it came with a surcharge because my area has limited capacity. I canceled my terrestrial wireless system (the one brought down by wildlife) and, in a moment of bravery, or stupidity, I put a ladder on my roof and climbed to the gable top to attach my Starlink receiver.

The speeds bounce around a lot, with some delays, or latency, but the SpaceX satellites provide perfectly adequate bandwidth for calls, Zoom meetings, web browsing and streaming. In short, I can now live on the farm while maintaining a lifeline to the world.

In a few years, this, and better, will come to millions of our isolated countrymen. Its not too much to hope that their belated entry into the Information Age will transform the fortunes of rural America.

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