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How to improve rural internet access

Bloomberg View

Of the many divides between urban and rural America — political, cultural, sartorial — the hardest to justify may be technological. Fast internet service is a necessity of modern life, yet it is far rarer for rural residents than for city dwellers. The government can help bridge this gap.

Some 39 percent of the U.S. rural population — 23 million people — lack access to fast broadband service, compared with only 4 percent of urban residents. The consequences are more serious than missing out on the latest Netflix series. Lack of reliable access to the internet makes it much harder to look for a job, for example, or to enroll in or take a class. For small businesses, a slow connection can be devastating.

The problem is that it is expensive to wire (nowadays, it’s usually fiber optic cable) remote areas, and returns can be decades away. So it’s hard to attract private investment. The good news is there is broad bipartisan support for investment from the federal government. The bad news is that the government, unsurprisingly, is not using the money as wisely as it might.

There have been plenty of pledges from government officials over the years to deliver better broadband service more widely. But the traditional approach of handing out subsidies has often resulted in funding the wrong projects at the wrong price.

(It’s worth noting that the U.S. is not alone here; Canada, Britain and Australia have also struggled to provide rural broadband.)

The Federal Communications Commission’s revamped Connect America Fund is the latest attempt to do better. The program seeks to distribute some $2 billion over 10 years through the use of reverse auctions, granting the right to provide service to the lowest bidder.

The FCC should keep its requirements to a minimum — mainly, that service meet the FCC’s standard for broadband, which it defines as at least 25 megabits per second. How the service is provided — via satellite, through cables, or something else — should matter far less. Nor should the FCC favor established firms over startups, which have helped narrow the urban/rural gap in the UK.

It is often said that internet service, like electricity or water, should be treated (and regulated) more like a public utility. Without wading into the contentious and long-running debate about that, it’s easy enough to point out that the government can do more, at the margins, to help bring better internet service to places where the market hasn’t.

Fast internet service is to the 21st century what a telephone line was to the 20th: essential to navigating daily life.

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