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Wavelengths: Has Federal Funding Solved Rural Broadband Connectivity Challenges?

Broadband availability in rural areas remains a major concern. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) apparently solved the problem by providing funding through the RDOF, or the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, but the initiative isn’t exactly foolproof.

In this new episode of Wavelengths, an Amphenol Broadband podcast, host Daniel Litwin spoke with Dr. Christopher Ali, associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and author of “Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity”. He pointed out that while the RDOF is a sign that rural broadband and connectivity has a bright future to keep pace with urban connectivity, the companies that can really solve the problem are not the fund’s benefactors. Dr. Ali said that the same companies manage to be among the top ten recipients of funds, which prevents the most suitable companies from obtaining adequate funding.

“One of the concerns I have about this particular first round of RDOF is, ‘Have we just funded what I call the biggest, loudest vendors at the expense of local and regional vendors – who have been the ones who have done a lot more fiber to the home, fiber to the node, fiber to the sidewalk, fiber to the tower — in recent years, than the biggest suppliers have? asked Dr. Ali.

While the RDOF’s ongoing funding routinely goes to these more familiar businesses, it locks in the businesses that can truly fill rural broadband gaps.

It is through mapping that the FCC is able to identify and target rural areas in need. But Dr Ali said this method is not so reliable: “I think one of the things that worries me with all this money flowing is that we are still using bad cards.”

This became a glaring problem when video conferencing requests surfaced during the pandemic, exposing poor connectivity in some areas.

“I worry about where that money is going, literally, in the geography of the United States, and are we going to see uninhabited areas being funded for broadband,” Dr. Ali said.