High-speed internet is rapidly becoming a crucial utility for everyday life. Without it, individuals and communities can face a range of disadvantages, from limited access to educational resources and telehealth services to hindered economic growth and reduced participation in the digital economy.

Despite this, access to broadband and fiber is uneven, especially in more rural areas. In smaller towns and countryside communities across North America, internet infrastructure is sub-par, unreliable, and unable to meet the demands of modern digital life.

To put the problem into starker relief: A 2019 Microsoft study found that 120.4 million people in the United States aren’t using high-speed internet—a third of the country—and that rural areas have the worst connectivity of all.

Bringing high-speed internet to rural North America

While the problem is stark, the tides are changing. American and Canadian federal governments have committed significant investments to expand high-speed internet coverage across North America.

In the US, the Broadband Equity Access and Development Program has committed $42.25 billion to expand high-speed internet access in all 50 states, plus Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. This commitment includes funding, planning, infrastructure deployment, and adoption programs.

In Canada, the federal government has committed to ensuring 98% of Canadians have high-speed internet access by 2026 and 100% by 2023. In 2020 the country announced a $3.22 billion Universal Broadband Fund to help meet these goals.

Opportunities for rural electric coops

As federal initiatives pave the way, electric coops are uniquely positioned to benefit, but they must be nimble and innovative to take advantage.

Traditionally known for their role in powering rural America, these coops have the opportunity to evolve into ISPs themselves. This transition allows them to leverage their existing infrastructure and local presence to deliver internet services, creating a new revenue stream while serving their communities.

Opportunities for rural communities

Of course, remote workers aren’t the only ones who require high-speed internet in rural communities. As the global economy grows more dependent on connected technology, everyone from farmers to librarians can stand to benefit from broadband access.

Building stronger communities

Fixed high-speed internet can strengthen smaller, more remote rural communities by better connecting them with the global economy and with resources and people that would otherwise be out of reach.

Empowering small businesses

For rural and home-based businesses, reliable broadband access is essential for lowering costs and growing revenue. Connection outages or drops can cost real dollars, and activities like virtual video meetings require the bandwidth only broadband can deliver.

Expanding healthcare options

In the world of health care, high-speed internet access in rural households greatly expands access to health care, particularly to specialists who may be located far away. Virtual healthcare options, including video call appointments with medical professionals, require large bandwidth with reliable connections.

Improving access to educational resources

A common story in remote communities is that young people leave to pursue education after high school. Today, the expanding world of online education—including well-known post-secondary colleges, universities, and trade schools—is only a click away. However, a lack of access to high-speed internet is a barrier. Many programs use cloud computing, virtual meetings, and other high-bandwidth activities.

Creating more efficient farms

For farmers in rural communities, an emerging market of smart technology designed specifically for agriculture can give them real-time access to vital information from sensors placed around their lands. This would require wired broadband service to their main building, plus a combination of transmitters that can bring connectivity to other areas on their farm.

Empowering autonomous farms

Beyond helping farmers gather critical data in real-time, a robust broadband network on their farm can open them up to the potential of using autonomous farming equipment, such as John Deere’s new self-driving tractor. This type of equipment not only can increase productivity and lower labor costs but also optimize the use of resources.

With significant investments from the US and Canadian governments, rural electric coops can evolve into Internet Service Providers, enhancing community life through improved access to education, healthcare, and smart agriculture. This advancement in rural broadband infrastructure promises a more connected, efficient, and prosperous future for rural communities.