Millions of rural Americans without broadband internet access today are losing out on billions of dollars in quality-of-life benefits ranging from better employment and education to commerce and health care.
That’s the word from NRECA Chief Economist Russell Tucker in his presentation at the USDA’s 95th Annual Agricultural Outlook Forum in late February.
“Access to broadband is essential for the economic health of rural communities,” said Tucker, lead author of the recent NRECA report “Unlocking the Value of Broadband for Electric Cooperative Consumer-Members.”
Co-ops deliver electricity to at least 6.3 million households that NRECA estimates to be without broadband access. This lack of access limits economic value for consumer-members on several fronts to the tune of $68 billion over 20 years, Tucker said.
“Many electric co-ops are concerned about the economic health and long-term viability of their communities if broadband access is not attained,” he said. “If broadband is not available in rural America, will parts of the rural population decide to move to where it is available? This is critical because the labor force is drawn from the population.”
The bright spot? Electric co-ops are already working hard to bridge the digital divide.
“Today, more than 100 co-ops are at varying stages of delivering retail broadband solutions. Many more are assessing the feasibility of providing retail service,” Tucker said.
“To the extent that broadband access provides an opportunity to maintain or grow the rural workforce combined with productivity-enhancing applications—such as precision agriculture—then this bodes well for local economic growth.”
Co-ops are finding ways to deliver high-speed internet as a byproduct of broadband backbone communications systems they are building to enable the application of smart grid technologies. These high-capacity, low-latency communications networks offer a cost-efficient opportunity to deliver retail broadband to communities served by the co-ops, Tucker said.
“In this way, electric co-ops are part of the solution to the digital divide,” he said.
By connecting critical infrastructure and delivering high volumes of data quickly, a broadband backbone alone improves grid reliability and saves money even for smaller co-ops.
A 10,000-member electric co-op could avoid grid operation costs of about $2 million to $3 million a year from smart grid applications enabled by operating a broadband backbone, NRECA research found.