It's easy to lose perspective when you're working with and using technology. Something that seems so simple and fast, like transferring a file, requires a lot of "behind-the-scenes" work to happen. There's the physical limitations -- does the network even reach my location? -- and there's also resource limitations -- is there enough staff or money to make file transfers in this area a reality?
In a world where the Internet of Things (IOT) is becoming a common commodity and people in urban areas expect fast transfer speeds and instant data access, there are those outside the urban bubble, mainly rural communities, that still face a number of challenges to making fast and reliable data transfer a reality.
There are many reasons that these rural communities need faster and more reliable broadband connections. The infrastructure of a community relies heavily on the speedy communication between staff. Whether it be to put out a fire or respond to an emergency situation, people need to communicate quickly and efficiently. This is especially important in the realm of health care. Rural communities have a difficult time upgrading the technologies that would grant them faster access to health care specialists, who are most likely located in urban areas. Telehealth allows specialists to quickly assess and provide diagnoses for patients remotely, but it relies heavily on data and image transfers that some rural networks can't currently provide. The barriers to providing quality broadband for a health care audience, including topography, security, and cost, can put constraints on the quality of specialist medical care people in rural areas can receive quickly.
Barriers to a Better Broadband Access
One of the biggest barriers to faster broadband is simply topography. Many times the distance from urban centers combined with a physical barrier, like lakes, mountains, or even just a great distance of land to cover (like the Great Plains) makes building and maintaining a better connection a harder process. Most broadband networks are constructed with central offices, which house the network components, switching, etc. that are connected to each other by wires, such as fiber. In an urban area, the distance between two offices may not be far, and there are usually several ways to develop connections that are already present in the environment. In more rural areas, the distance between offices is usually greater and existing connections are oftentimes not as readily available, so broadband construction can be a more difficult process.
Health care data has a lot of restrictions on it -- where and to whom patient information can be transferred or backed up is among the biggest issues health care communities have to face. Rural communities can have a hard time satisfying the requirements, as the security of the network is under much more scrutiny than a normal network connection would be. Add in the miles and miles that data must travel, all under a secure network, and security can seem like an issue that is too complex or too cumbersome to be effectively addressed by a rural health care provider's IT staff (assuming they have dedicated IT resources). In the realm of emergency health care response, ongoing data compliance is also an issue. The security of the data that emergency response teams use or need to store can be another issue that rural communities have to address with security compliance requirements. This only adds to the demands for security on any new network.
Construction costs can be prohibitive to establishing a high-speed, high-quality broadband network in rural communities. This type of network usually requires a physical fiber connection, which can be costly to install in any environment. Urban areas usually have the advantage because there are more people and businesses living in much smaller square footage, meaning the amount of fiber that has to be laid is lower and the cost can be spread out among the higher population. In rural areas, a physical fiber network has to be run over each mile of ground, resulting in higher construction costs spread over a sparser population. Additionally, running fiber through complex and expansive types of topography (around or under a body of water or across and through a mountain range) is a cost-heavy, complex exercise that must be factored in to overall construction costs.
Ways to Facilitate Broadband Construction
As new buildings, roads, and houses are built and old structures are converted or taken down, the people responsible for planning should take what a fiber network might need in the future (such as easy access for installation in houses and buildings) into account. Planning for a future network at the same time other construction is done can save thousands of dollars that would be used in deconstructing, laying cables, and reconstructing a building or road. One way some contractors do this is by providing a hollow area of conduit for future cables to pass through the walls or even underground. The conduit ensures there is space for cables to be run through without having to take down the walls or dig into the ground -- the digging and construction is done while the walls and ground are already open.
Change Network Construction
Another approach to making high-speed and secure broadband more accessible is to change the way the networks are constructed. Since the main challenge seems to be distance, there may be many ways to compensate with design. For example, CenturyLink developed a "dual hub and spoke" network in one community to help with security, redundancy, and network speeds. The Northern and Southern parts of the state each received their own dedicated "hub" to coordinate activity and provide data redundancy to the information. Think of this network like a bicycle tire. There's a "hub", in this case a data center, and many "spokes" that reach out and across to very ends of the tire, or in this case, "the network". The hubs coordinate the passing of data to the spokes, and one hub can take over for another in the result of a network failure.
There are many ways that rural communities and individuals wanting to introduce or improve the broadband connection in their areas can do so. The most important part is to have a plan. Gaining the cooperation and support of the local construction and IT communities can help make a case for improving broadband everywhere.
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