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USDA Community Connect program: Technological change and bringing broadband to rural America

The USDA just released the Community Connect Grant program RFP, which has $30 million to fund 15 projects that will provide broadband in underserved rural communities. We’ve written a bunch of proposals related to rural Internet access, most during the heyday of the Stimulus Bill around 2010. Almost all of those projects involved, on some level, either digging a trench or stringing a wire. Both activities are very, very expensive, so not that many people can be served.

Google has discovered as much, albeit in urban areas: the company famously launched an effort to roll out gigabit fiber Internet about eight years ago, but relentless and ferocious legal and regulatory pressure from incumbents has led the company to scale back its plans. The combination of regulatory capture from other Internet providers and the inherent cost of digging and stringing defeated even Google.

But, at the same time, Google has also announced plans to offer wireless gigabit services in some cities, by placing antennas on the roofs of multifamily buildings and using an antenna-to-antenna system to bypass the digging-or-stringing-a-wire problem.

By now, you can probably see where I’m going. In the old world—like, the world of ten years ago—Community Connect-style programs only really worked with wires. But today, wired hubs combined with radios or lasers may allow projects to deploy broadband to far more locations with far less funding. I can’t speak to the technical feasibility of such projects (though we often write scientific and technical grants). But it doesn’t take an electrical engineering degree to know that “costs less” and “provides more” is a winning argument. I think that smart rural utilities will be looking into wireless systems for last-mile connections. The technology, it would appear, is here; it wasn’t in 2010. As you can likely tell from the title of this post, grant writers who can argue that the technology is here should be able to demonstrate cost benefits over fully wired systems.

We may also be in an interregnum period: While SpaceX has proposed low-latency satellite Internet, that technology is in the prototype stage and is not here yet. Ten years from now, low-orbit satellites may provide latency times as low as 25ms.

Overall, technological change should drive a change in the way Community Connect proposals are written. Many human-service grant programs change very little over time; eight or nine years ago, we began mentioning social media in proposals, but for the most part human service programs have the same fundamental structure: an organization gets some people with problems to come to a facility to receive some services, or the organization sends some expert workers to people with problems to receive some services. Even today, however, most human services nonprofits don’t make much use of social media in service delivery, although it is often used for volunteer recruitment, donations, etc. Technical grant proposals like those being written for Community Connect, though, can and should be driven by technical change.