There's still interest in rural broadband experiments, but no way to judge feasibility yet

24 November 2014 by Steve Blum
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If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Hundreds of companies, communities and miscellaneous organisations, representing just a touch shy of a thousand projects, told the FCC last March that they wanted to take part in its rural broadband experiment program. When it came time to actually submit a bid – it’s effectively an auction process – only 181 applications were received by the 7 November 2014 deadline.

The FCC hasn’t released a list of the bidders. It’s only said that the process…

…has attracted almost 600 project bids from 181 applicants, representing nearly $885 million worth of projects.

In total, the 181 applicants proposed to serve over 76,000 census blocks in all 50 states and Puerto Rico.

Bidders included a diverse group of entities, including competitive providers, electric utilities, wireless internet service providers, and others.

Without knowing which census blocks are involved, it’s hard to come up with an accurate coverage number, but a very rough guestimate is that something like 3% to 5% of the rural U.S. population might be affected. There are about 11.2 million census blocks in the country, about a fifth of which are rural. 76,000 is about 3.4% of that, but factor out uninhabited census blocks and the figure pushes closer to 5%.

To take it one step further, if you assume 50 to 100 people per rural census block (another egregiously round guestimate), then maybe something half to three-quarters of a million people are affected. Maybe fewer: rural blocks can be tiny in terms of population. That’s a (very) rough indicator of interest, though, not an estimate of the number of rural people who will be seeing broadband service upgrades in the near future. The number of projects funded in this experimental round will be more like a dozen, which drops the assumed coverage by an order of magnitude.

It’ll be interesting to see who actually applied and what they’re proposing to do. A large proportion of those applicants are likely to be no hopers who figured they had nothing to lose by asking. The projects to look for are the ones that either involve truly innovative technology or business models, or are backed by companies with the scale to truly go large in rural areas if the experiment produces a positive result.