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Broadband expansion akin to rural electrification

For millions of Americans laboring under slow or no Internet service, help is on the way.

Bolstered by billions in federal stimulus money, an effort to expand broadband Internet access to rural areas including parts of Kansas is under way, an ambitious 21st-century infrastructure project with parallels to the New Deal electrification of the nation's hinterlands in the 1930s and 1940s.

President Obama emphasized the importance of Internet access in his State of the Union address last week.

"To attract new businesses to our shores, we need the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods, and information — from high-speed rail to high-speed Internet," Obama said.

In the Depression, it was power to the people — for farm equipment and living-room lamps, cow-milking machines and kitchen appliances. Now, it's online access — to YouTube and digital downloads, to videoconferencing and Facebook, to eBay and Twitter.

"Rural areas all across the country are wrestling with this, somewhat desperately," said Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development. "Young people who grow up with the media will not live where they can't be connected to digital culture. So most rural communities have been behind the eight ball."

In Kansas, Rural Telephone Service Co., Inc. got $100 million in stimulus loans and grants to extend broadband into unserved areas.

"Because of the economic climate that we live in — declining population, small farms being bought up by larger operators — the more technology and more access to information that those customers can have, the more likely they are to be able to stay in business," said Rhonda Goddard, the company's chief operating officer.

"It's revolutionary out there, for them to have access to the information they need to keep their business running — access to the markets, being able to buy supplies and equipment from the region instead of just from their local market. It opens doors. It increases competitiveness. It props up business."

Seventy years ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt realized that if private industry wouldn't run power lines out to the farthest reaches of rural areas, it would take government money to help make it happen. In 1935, the Rural Electrification Administration was established to deliver electricity to the Tennessee Valley and beyond.

Broadband money

Now, money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is doing the same with broadband, which is typically defined as DSL (digital subscriber line), cable modem, fiber optic or fixed wireless.

The stimulus act set aside $7.2 billion for expansion of broadband access, believing it will spur economic growth, boost educational opportunities and create jobs. The money has jump-started what were existing efforts by states and telecom providers to bridge the digital divide of rural America.

In its national broadband plan issued last year, the Federal Communications Commission pinpointed schools' use of online resources as one of the key targets of the stimulus-funded expansion efforts.

"With broadband, students and teachers can expand instruction beyond the confines of the physical classroom and traditional school day," the plan says. "Broadband can also provide more customized learning opportunities for students to access high-quality, low-cost and personally relevant educational material."

Schools in many rural districts lack that now.

"We sorely need fiber-optic in our community," said Robert Brinkley, director of technology for the North Country Supervisory Union school district in Vermont.

The 13 schools in his district share a T-1 line whose bandwidth is so small that whenever a video field trip is planned for a class, all the other users on the system have to stop using e-mail first.

"The picture doesn't just get poor, we lose the connection. Whether it's NASA or the Cleveland Museum of Art, we'll lose the connection or it'll drop completely," said Brinkley.

A U.S. Commerce Department report last year showed that 65.9 percent of urban households subscribed to broadband in 2009, compared with 51 percent of rural households. There are several reasons for the rural shortfall, but lack of availability is the most often cited.

Consumers in rural states have been left behind, either because their homes are too far from one another, mountains make construction expensive or providers have lacked the capital to justify the investment.

Obama said the broadband goals far exceed convenience.

"This isn't just about faster Internet or fewer dropped calls," the president said. "It's about connecting every part of America to the digital age. It's about a rural community in Iowa or Alabama where farmers and small-business owners will be able to sell their products all over the world. It's about a firefighter who can download the design of a burning building onto a hand-held device; a student who can take classes with a digital textbook; or a patient who can have face-to-face video chats with her doctor."

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