The FCC, state utility commissions, rural customers and others have bemoaned the slow pace of rural broadband build-out and adoption. Some studies suggest that barely 50% of rural households in the U.S. currently utilize a broadband connection. Broadband adoption is an issue, but clearly the unavailability of fast and reliable broadband networks is a major source of the problem. Telecommunications carriers and broadband providers consistently remind regulators that it is simply not cost-effective to build out broadband networks in many rural areas in the U.S. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the FCC’s new “Connect America” initiative both include multi-billion dollar funding streams to address the high cost of rural build-outs. But the results of such government sponsored initiatives have been mixed at best, and it is unclear when ubiquitous broadband will arrive for the roughly 18 million rural households currently without it. Absent a critical mass of customers, many rural areas will likely be without broadband for the foreseeable future.
Utility smart grids could provide the critical mass needed to kick start rural broadband build-outs.
A new whitepaper by the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association (“NCTA”) highlights the potential game-changing impact the smart utility grid could have on the rural broadband problem. The whitepaper, entitled “The Smart Rural Community,” argues that the smart grid can help drive the expansion of broadband to underserved rural areas. NCTA encourages partnerships between rural utility companies and broadband companies to “leverage each others’ strengths and share resources.” The NCTA whitepaper highlights one of the less-talked-about positive attributes of the smart utility grid: the smart grid as a driver of broadband build-out. It may be cost prohibitive to build out expensive broadband networks in many rural areas in order to serve a handful of households, some of which may not even choose to adopt broadband. However, if broadband providers partner with existing gas, water and electric utilities on smart grid projects, the network resources constructed for the smart grid projects could be leveraged to build the ubiquitous, fast and reliable networks that policymakers are struggling to get built.