Part 1: What Lies Ahead For 2021 And Beyond

February 2, 2021By Stephen V. Smith

Predictions serve a purpose. The practice of making predictions forces us to think about the past, look for trends, and consider how current events will impact the direction of the issues we choose to examine. The unfolding of 2021 calls us to such reflection.

Future generations will study this moment we’re living through, analyzing the social, public health, and economic fallout of the confluence of so many watershed moments. We’ve faced many hard things as a nation, but we’ve never seen anything like this moment. To help us think about what’s next, and to consider how the coming months could play out, I offer some predictions.

These aren’t guarantees or bets — in fact, I hope some issues turn out better than what I’ve envisioned. Rather, these are flags in the sand, waypoints that can help us think about what is coming and look back upon for reflection as the year passes.

1) Major Progress on Rural Broadband

The COVID-19 pandemic taught us many things, chief of which might be that society depends greatly on broadband. I interviewed someone recently who pointed out that if the pandemic had happened 10 years ago, we would have been in really big trouble.

Think about it. Bandwidth speeds were considerably lower a decade ago, and millions of people had no broadband at all. All those jobs that went home would have been hamstrung at best and lost at worst. No Zoom conference calls to collaborate with coworkers and clients. No connections to company servers to share large files. No endless connectivity to conduct business uninterrupted. Some regions would have been fine, sure, but rural America would have suffered greatly.

Now think about education. Teachers wouldn’t have shifted suddenly to virtual classrooms; they would have been unable to teach. Students would simply have been at home, unable to remain in touch with teachers and classmates and continue their learning.

And how about health care? I’ve had several appointments with my neurologist over broadband. As someone who lives with a rare disease, these visits are important. Telehealth technology has kept me on track while avoiding the risk of a visit to a major university health care facility. I know people who have used telehealth for routine visits as well. None of this would have been possible 10 years ago.

Pardon the long introduction (I’m passionate about this subject), but that sets up my first prediction:

We will move quickly as a nation to solve the rural broadband challenge once and for all. It won’t happen in 2021 or 2022, but we will move more aggressively than ever before toward the goal of ending the digital divide.

This is not a sudden shift, but rather an acceleration of a trend. Coming out of the Great Recession, the Obama administration passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that included billions of dollars in broadband stimulus funds. Working with rural broadband providers, I had a front-row seat to the impact this had. New jobs were created as contractors grew their crews to install all the new fiber that was being financed. Providers, many of them community-owned utilities such as electric and telecommunications cooperatives, committed millions of dollars in order to secure additional millions in federal support, building reliable fiber networks that will serve their communities for decades to come.

This trend continued through the Trump administration, whose ReConnect program invested over a billion dollars in rural broadband. Another $600 million-plus for ReConnect was approved in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, signed into law in December. The FCC is preparing to award more than $9 billion in broadband support through its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. As President Biden lays out the initiatives for his administration, we see broadband investment taking center stage not only to support jobs, education, and health care but also as a job creator unto itself.

There may well be folks reading this who remember a time when not everyone had access to electricity. There are certainly people who remember when reliable phone service was not ubiquitous. I look forward to the day when I can sit in my rocker and tell my grandkids and great-grandkids about a time when not everyone had broadband, and watch them struggle to imagine an America where millions were not connected. I believe we’re headed that way.

2) Increased Distributed Energy Momentum

People want a reliable energy source. They want the power to stay on, all the time. Fossil fuels play a vital role in that reliability, and will for a very long time. Pie-in-the-sky fantasies about being 100% renewable by whatever near-term date will prove too ambitious. However, the move in that direction is powerful and will not slow down.

The momentum is there among professionals in the electric power industry across the country, and that includes the Southeast. Organizations of local power companies have been positioning themselves for years to be ready for — and take advantage of — technology that is changing the power grid.

They are preparing for the reality of distributed energy, where a percentage of the power they sell to their customers is generated locally, on their grid.

In my region, utilities have negotiated with TVA to control a portion of their wholesale purchasing in light of that. They aren’t sitting by to see what happens, they know what is happening — and are indeed making it happen (consider the Project Liftoff partnership between Seven States Power Corporation, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, and Huntsville Utilities).

I predict this trend will continue, as more and more people realize it’s not only good for the environment of the planet we hope to keep inhabiting for a few more centuries, but also for the economy. The energy sector will continue to adapt and grow as a source of good-paying jobs, and our investments in technology will bring new, exciting developments into our lives.

(Part one of three excerpts from the article, “What Lies Ahead: 11 Predictions for 2021 and Beyond” by Stephen V. Smith. The original can be found in its entirety on Medium. Note: Opinions of the writer do not necessarily reflect the opinions of WordSouth and its affiliates.)


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