With more than $1 billion on the line, Oklahomans will play a crucial role in rural broadband expansion | Community
Access to high-speed broadband internet service in rural Oklahoma has long been a top issue for Farm Bureau members. From conducting daily household tasks to streaming television, and from attending Zoom meetings to accessing important software updates on farming equipment, the ability to connect to high-speed broadband is crucial for Oklahomans living in both urban and rural areas.
From now until Jan. 13, 2023, Oklahomans have the unique opportunity to take part in helping Oklahoma’s case for expanded broadband access through a coverage map recently released by the Federal Communications Commission.
The map shows internet service options for residential and commercial addresses across the state and nation. The Oklahoma Broadband Governing Board, created by the state legislature in 2022, is encouraging Oklahomans to check their address and verify the accuracy of the service listings.
Mike Fina, the chairman of the OBGB, said the FCC map is accessible and functional, but it is not an accurate indication of available service in Oklahoma.
“The problem is, up to now, only the industry has put in their data,” Fina said. “It looks like we are well-covered, but those of us who understand rural Oklahoma know that we are not covered at all.”
The OBGB has the opportunity to distribute nearly $1.5 billion in state and federal funding to expand broadband infrastructure in Oklahoma, but much of this money will be determined by the final FCC map.
“The way they determine the (funding amount) is based on the number of unserved Oklahomans we have,” Fina said. “That map is our initial glimpse of what Oklahoma looks like when it comes to served and unserved areas.”
The Oklahoma Broadband Office will collect information from around the state but is asking Oklahomans to help. Residents can simply enter their address in the FCC map and view the available services listed. If inaccuracies are found, Fina encourages residents to take action and report them through the map’s coverage challenge tool.
“We’ll do a bulk challenge for everything that will be a little more formal than what the everyday citizen does, but I think it’s important that people get out to do this process because it helps us have a better idea of what is happening,” he said.
Fina, who comes from a family of dairy farmers in Collinsville, knows firsthand the challenge of keeping the family farm alive and understands the important role high-speed broadband access can play in the continued vibrance in rural Oklahoma.
There are many technological opportunities available that can improve agriculture and save the family farm, but they are not accessible without high-speed internet, he said. This is where the broadband funding can help.
“If we do our job right and really focus on rural Oklahoma with these dollars, that is going to be an incredible byproduct of our effort,” he said.
Fina said it is crucial for all people – both rural and urban – to understand the importance of bringing high-speed broadband to rural Oklahoma.
“Those of us who now live in the city and go to the grocery store need to understand that, if we want to continue to have reasonable prices and milk in the refrigerated section, this is really important for rural Oklahoma,” he said.
Although metropolitan areas like Oklahoma City and Tulsa have comparable internet coverage to similarly sized cities around the country, very few internet service providers have ventured into rural Oklahoma.
“No state has focused on rural broadband before,” Fina said. “The reason for that is until now, it has been the ISPs that have really had any interest in getting broadband anywhere in the state. They look at rural Oklahoma and say, ‘we just can’t afford to do it.’”
The high cost of infrastructure is the primary reason rural Oklahoma has not seen better coverage, he said.
“The problem is when you get into rural Oklahoma and our agricultural communities, everybody lives so far apart that it is hard to get fiber into those homes,” Fina said. “When you get spread out and every house is a mile apart, it is really expensive to get that infrastructure out there.”
Fina said many residents in these areas must turn to wireless solutions for internet access, but the options are limited.
“It is all a business decision for (service providers), and if they cannot afford to get the infrastructure out to those parts of Oklahoma, they are not going to do it without some kind of incentive,” he said.
Thanks to the funding the Oklahoma Broadband Office hopes to receive, Fina is optimistic that they will be able to encourage and assist service providers in expanding broadband infrastructure in rural Oklahoma.
“That is a big part of why we are really focused (on rural Oklahoma),” Fina said. “For once we can try to catch up.”
The state legislature gave the OBGB five years to bring high-speed broadband access to all Oklahomans; therefore, it is crucial to finish the FCC map project as it will serve as a guide to the broadband board’s efforts in the coming years.
Once funding is allocated after the map is complete, the Oklahoma Broadband Office and the broadband board plan to work with partners across the state, including rural co-ops and other internet service providers.
But Oklahomans will not see members of the OBGB digging in rights-of-way. Rather, the broadband office’s primary role will be to distribute funding to their partners to implement the necessary infrastructure.
“It is going to be a partnership with a lot of different entities in order to get us to our end goal,” Fina said.
The OBGB is also working with the Oklahoma Broadband Office to create a map similar to the FCC’s, but with a specific focus on Oklahoma.
“When we get to the final map, it will be our scoreboard to see how well we did with these (funding) dollars,” Fina said. “Ultimately, what it is going to be for the most basic user is that they will be able to identify their house and understand what is available to them.”
Fina said improved access to high-speed broadband will bring more people to rural Oklahoma and will make the entire state stronger.
“There are three things killing rural Oklahoma,” he said. “It is the lack of educational opportunities, lack of economic opportunities and lack of healthcare. Broadband, although it does not fix all three of those, helps our rural communities get back on level footing.”
With modern-day technology and appliances – including farming equipment – relying on a strong wi-fi signal, access to high-speed service is crucial, but current rural broadband is not fast enough to keep up with the modern world, Fina said.
“If we don’t get rural Oklahoma into the modern world, we are going to keep falling farther behind,” he said.
Fina said he believes the agriculture industry will greatly benefit from improved broadband access, especially as agricultural technology and robotics advance.
“Farming is going to benefit greatly from the advancement in robotics, but (broadband) is the foundation for all of those things,” he said. “If we want to bring that to Oklahoma farms, we have got to get the high-speed broadband out there.”
To learn more about verifying your broadband service through the FCC map, visit okfb.news/BroadbandMap.