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High-Speed Internet Access Is Finally Coming to Rural America

Low-orbiting satellites and fixed wireless hold promise, but cost continues to be a barrier

spinner image rural houses near farms and a cell tower showing internet connectivity
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Traditionally, one of the joys — and banes — of living in the country has been a lack of internet access, but as technology marches forward, this, too, is changing.

Disconnecting from the frustrations of Facebook and other social media can be a relief. But as many learned during the pandemic, being unable to get high-speed internet access can make working, learning and video calling difficult, if not impossible, in rural areas.

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The COVID experience was a tough time, and it taught us a lot,” says Michael Beesley, chief technology officer at Cisco Service Provider Networking. Cisco is the company behind the popular WebEx videoconferencing software. “The level of digital connectivity had a great effect in substantiating the assertion that broadband really is a vital utility.” 

As of November 2023, more than 7.2 million homes and businesses still lacked access to high-speed internet service, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) national broadband access map. That’s less than half of the 14.5 million Americans reported to have been without broadband internet access in 2019. But the digital divide remains wide because of cost and availability.

In particular, rural residents — about 1 of every 5 people in the U.S., according to the 2020 census — are more likely than suburban or urban residents to say that access to high-speed internet is a problem. While about two-thirds of those in rural areas say they have access to a fast connection at home, 57 percent say cost is a problem, according to a January 2022 AARP study, the latest available.

spinner image workers dig to lay fiber optic cable in wiggins colorado
Allen Scott, left, and Seth Dawson of Blue Lightning Broadband in Wiggins, Colorado, lay fiber optic cable Dec. 19, 2019, outside of Wiggins.
RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Grants, loans are transforming the landscape

All that is changing — gradually — thanks to the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law and new technology.

High-speed internet access speeds improved by 44 percent from 2022 to 2023, according to a report from, an internet provider comparison site. Nationwide speeds averaged more than 170 megabits per second (Mbps), more than enough to stream ultra-high-definition, 4K, video on your smart TV.

But suburban and rural areas with gigabit fiber optic cable, which means speeds of 1,000 Mbps, and 5G home internet skew the average upward, the report says. States with the slowest average speeds were typically those with a more rural population, including Alaska, West Virginia, Montana, Idaho, New Mexico and Vermont. 

The median download speed that testers measured in Alaska was 35.51 Mbps. Vermont, the highest of the low, had a median speed of 60.81 Mbps, so half of the measurements were higher and half were lower.

Internet inroads into rural areas began in earnest in 2019 with a U.S. Department of Agriculture program called ReConnect. It has given nearly $5 billion in grants and loans to broadband providers to expand services in rural areas such as Chautauqua County, Kansas, on the border with Oklahoma, where Totah Communications of Ochelata, Oklahoma, received $4.1 million earlier this year to lay fiber optic cable that will expand download speeds of at least 100 Mbps and upload speeds of 20 Mbps to 213 people, five businesses and 33 farms.

The Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program began divvying up $42.45 billion in grants this past summer to upgrade internet service in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands. Its focus is on places without internet, with speeds below 25 Mbps and “underserved” locations that fall short of the 100/20 Mbps threshold, not just rural areas.

“We were totally out of the loop” on internet before getting high-speed service earlier this year in Lafourche Crossing, Louisiana, about 45 miles southwest of New Orleans, Jane Lyles told PBS Newshour. “We would sit at a friend’s house in the driveway for internet access, or we’d sit in a McDonald’s parking lot. … We had a block party when we got it. You just don’t realize how bad things are sometimes.”

spinner image a cellular tower above the trees in the poconos mountains in pennsylvania
A cellular tower stands above the treetops in the Poconos Mountains of Pennsylvania. Some mobile carriers are using their towers to offer 5G fixed wireless internet service.

5G fixed wireless home internet offers an option

But traditional broadband technology has its limitations. Stringing miles of cables or optical fiber to remote rural customers is time consuming and expensive.

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The much-hyped introduction of 5G cellular service didn’t improve the picture much. Its higher-frequency radio waves require a greater concentration of towers than the old 4G networks.

So-called millimeter-wave 5G signals can’t travel as far as 4G LTE transmissions, which means many rural locations remain out of reach. However, some fixed-wireless solutions have been introduced as an alternative to cable Wi-Fi in the past couple of years.

T-Mobile has launched its fixed-wireless Home Internet in limited areas. For $50 a month, high-speed access is delivered using a T-Mobile supplied 5G router/modem that then uses Wi-Fi to connect a subscriber’s devices online. 

Verizon offers a similar service dubbed 5G Home Plus for $60 a month. However, both services have limited availability and neither cover rural areas with little or no cellular service.

Telephone wires, satellites are slower

So folks in the country have typically had only two options: old digital subscriber lines (DSL), which is internet service over wired telephone lines, or satellite services such as Germantown, Maryland-based HughesNet and Carlsbad, California-based Viasat. In many cases, they are too slow to handle many of the ways information is disseminated today.

The maximum speed of DSL service in urban areas is 100 Mbps, according to service-comparison site BroadbandNow. And that speed is more of a rare burst than a constant. The best a fixed DSL line could muster in some tests in a rural area was 1.2 Mbps on downloads.

Almost a quarter of rural residents 50 and older were likely to use their local phone line to deliver high-speed internet via DSL, twice as likely as urban or suburban residents, according to a 2021 AARP study.

Satellite internet services often promise up to 25 Mbps but usually fall short of that, especially when the weather is rainy, snowy or windy. Speeds of up to 75 Mbps can cost close to $170 a month.

Netflix streaming video service recommends speeds of at least 3 Mbps to watch a single standard-quality video, commonly referred to as 480p, a screen height of 480 pixels with a progressive scan that draws the picture line by line in sequence; 5 Mbps for high definition; and 25 Mbps for ultra-high definition or 4K.

In 2015, the FCC raised the official requirements for broadband to 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. That’s about 40 times slower than the gigabit download internet speeds that providers such as AT&T Fiber, CenturyLink, Google Fiber, Verizon Fios and Xfinity offer in urban areas.

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“I think most services perform well over a 100 Mbps-plus download and 20 Mbps upload network. We design services around that,” Cisco’s Beesley says. However, in households with multiple users online and more smart home devices like web cams, “obviously more is better.” 

spinner image a starlink receiver on top of a house in kurdistan iran
A Starlink receiver sits atop a house Jan. 28, 2023, in Kurdistan, Iran. The dishes have been smuggled in so families can get reliable internet service.

A different kind of satellite offers alternative

The challenge of bringing broadband to the boonies has made the market receptive to new technologies. The most prominent now is small low-earth-orbit satellites to relay internet connections. The first such service is called Starlink, launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and made famous for its use in Ukraine in the war against Russia. 

Starlink eventually will use a constellation of thousands of satellites to bring internet service to remote locations around the world with speeds of 300 Mbps or better. Unlike a HughesNet or DirecTV satellite, these are not geosynchronous or geostationary satellites, which typically sit in one spot about 22,000 miles above the planet. Starlink’s smaller satellites orbit 340 miles above the Earth, substantially reducing the signal delay or latency. 

By the end of October 2023, Redmond, Washington-based Starlink had more than 5,000 satellites in orbit, according to independent observers. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets can put up 60 at one time, but thousands more satellites will be needed to provide complete coverage.

Initially, Starlink service focused on southern Canada and the northern United States, but it is rapidly expanding around the world. Starlink recently announced that it now has 2 million active subscribers and is available on seven continents in more than 60 countries. 

How low-earth-orbit service fared in the country

During its initial release, I conducted weeks of hands-on testing as part of Starlink’s beta program, and then returned to the service in early 2023 to reassess its performance. The bottom line: The technology represents a significant improvement over the alternatives, with speeds hundreds of times faster than DSL. I regularly recorded top download speeds of 200 Mbps.

For the first time in a rural Vermont location, email downloaded in a split second, and movies could be streamed without watching a “buffering” icon every few minutes. Facetime, WebEx and Zoom video meetings also were conducted along with innumerable data-intensive tasks, such as updating a computer operating system and playing games online. They all worked well with some caveats.

Speeds varied widely from about 28 Mbps to 200 Mbps. The low-earth-orbiting satellites move, so Starlink’s dish and software must track them constantly, which could be one reason for some of the discrepancies. Furthermore, the Starlink connection often would drop for no apparent reason, suddenly interrupting what was until then a perfect Skype call.

Cisco’s Beesley explains that such hiccups are akin to those that occur when you’re on a train and the cellular system has to transfer your phone call from one tower to another as you travel.

“It’s still a minor problem,” he says. “But as the mesh network builds out, the more seamless the hand-off can be.” So as Starlink sends more satellites aloft, the company expects reliability to improve.

In 2022, the FCC approved up to 7,500 Starlink satellites to be launched. However, Starlink initially sought the OK for more than 30,000 satellites despite objections from competitors that it would lead to more space junk and the possibility of damaged satellites falling to Earth. 

Up-front equipment costs can be expensive

Starlink’s package costs $599 for its satellite dish and Wi-Fi router, plus shipping and taxes, which puts the total at nearly $700 without monthly service costs, depending on where you live. Basic service is $120 a month. 

Additional plans now include mobile service, useful for recreational vehicle travelers, that costs $150 a month. Many customers will find that price high — and it doesn’t include TV channels or programming. Starlink is also about to introduce a third-generation package for the same price but promising an improved Wi-Fi router.

On the upside, the Starlink system is relatively simple to set up. Unpack the dish, pop it into its four-legged base, find an open piece of sky to aim at, string the cable to the included Wi-Fi router and turn it on.

The dish is motorized and heated to keep it clear of snow and ice. People who live in wooded, mountainous areas might have a more difficult time finding that open piece of sky so their dish can discover satellite coverage.

HughesNet satellite internet starts at $49.99, and data is capped at 15 gigabytes (GB) a month at the top speed of 15 Mbps. The price increases to $124.99 a month for 200 GB at a top speed of 25 Mbps. The equipment has to be purchased for $349.98 or leased for $14.99 a month.

That’s still expensive without a lot of data. If you watch four two-hour movies from Netflix in 4K, you’ll exceed the 50 GB limit. Streaming ultra-high-definition video can use up to 7 GB of data an hour, Netflix says.

spinner image long exposure image of starlink satellites passing over uruguay
This long-exposure image shows the trail of a group of Starlink satellites passing Nov. 12, 2023, over Uruguay in South America with part of the Milky Way and Venus, at left, visible.

Astronomers worry about light pollution

Starlink’s plans have generated more controversy, not just from its competitors. The first complaints came from astronomers and amateur stargazers who pointed out that the light pollution from the low orbiting satellites reflecting sunlight interfered with telescope observations.

SpaceX has tried different solutions, including a VisorSat that uses a black sunshade to reduce light reflection. How effective it has been is still a matter of debate.

With thousands more satellites eventually expected to circle in low earth orbit, Starlink made an arrangement with NASA to avoid future collisions with craft such as the International Space Station. Starlink will automatically maneuver its satellites to avoid any collisions, NASA will not move its equipment and Starlink will report any planned launches to NASA.

Meanwhile, more low earth orbit satellite services are likely:

  • Amazon, based in Seattle, received permission from the FCC in 2020 to launch what it calls Project Kuiper to deliver rural internet access, but it is still in its initial test phase. 
  • Eutelsat OneWeb, based in London, has recently received approval to roll out service in India. 
  • Telesat, based in Ottawa, Ontario, in Canada, has plans to offer similar access and plans to use Musk’s SpaceX rockets to launch a global service available in 2027. 

Ultimately, the low orbiting satellites might resolve the problem of delivering high-speed internet access to less populated areas. The number of people working remotely during the pandemic and now in hybrid work situations has accelerated the demand for high-speed internet access nationwide.

But a challenge remains: Can that demand lower costs for all who want the faster service they see in cities and suburbs?

John R. Quain is a contributing writer who covers personal autos and vehicle technology. His work also appears in The New York Times and PC Magazine and on CBS News.

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