Sunday, December 20, 2009

Coming soon: more broadband for rural America

photo: Arik Hesseldahl for BusinessWeek

Vice President Joe Biden was just in Dawsonville, GA, a small rural town (pop. 619), to announce eighteen projects that will receive $183 million in federal funding (collectively) to bring high speed Internet service to rural places. Biden spoke at Impulse Manufacturing, a metalworks plant in north Georgia whose business has been stunted by the lack of a broadband network in that part of the state.

The government recently set aside $7.4 billion dollars in stimulus funding for rural broadband service, as Internet service providers overlook many poor neighborhoods, rural areas, and Native American communities. Federal programs plan to distribute about $2 billion over the next couple of months, while the balance of the $7.4 billion has been spent on mapping projects or will be distributed in a final round of grants.

According to a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, only 46% of rural American households have access to high-speed Internet connections. That's up from 38% in 2008, but it pales in comparison with 67% for non-rural dwellers. Lack of fast Web access creates a division that makes it harder for businesses to do business, impedes employment searches, disadvantages students, and leaves a large percentage of the country less connected to helpful information on the Web (including health sites and news updates). "Broadband is a distance killer, which can especially help rural Americans," says Pew's John Horrigan. "Broadband is not just an information source for news and civic matters, but it's also a pathway to participation."

A recent story in the Washington Post describes how $121M of $183M-the first allocation of stimulus funding-targets "middle mile" projects. These are projects that connect the larger community to the national Internet grid (via a public library, for example). Connecting individual homes and businesses ("last mile" projects) without first connecting the middle mile would not efficiently solve the problem. According to one analyst, a failure to address the middle mile is “the biggest choke point preventing broadband deployment to rural areas." It is easier to connect the community to the national grid, then to work down from there, connecting each individual home in turn. [Note: "last mile" projects, however, do receive federal funding].

Demand for the rural broadband money has been high - with applications coming in from local governments, rural cooperatives, and non-profits all over the country. Examples of some of the funded projects funded are:
-New Mexico State Library ("how-to" web training for Spanish, Navajo, and Pueblo-speaking groups in 15 communities).
-North Georgia Network Cooperative (fiber-optic ring to connect communities in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, serves 334,000).
-Biddleford Internet Corp., (U. of Maine/ISPs partnership) (3 fiber-optic rings across rural Maine, serves 100 communities with 110,000 households; connects 10 U. of Maine campuses).

-Consolidated Electric Cooperative (north central Ohio)(166-mile fiber network to connect 16 electrical substations to support a smart grid project).
-Alaska Native Corporation (SW Alaska) (4G wireless network)

-Fiber-to-the-home project in a remote corner of New Hampshire

-Computer centers for 84 libraries in Arizona.

For a good encapsulation of the plight of a broadband-less rural business, and the effects of that lack of access on rural community residents in general, see this short video. Arik Hesseldahl traveled to rural Centerville, Tennessee (pop. 3,793) to investigate a story for BusinessWeek. [The story is a little over a year old, but the message, I think, still holds true]. Hesseldahl interviews Sandra Thornton, a manager of the local sewing plant, who describes her frustrations with securing new clients and bidding on contracts. "If I could just get DSL, I could get so much more done," she says. "It's really frustrating." The problem: a corporate-grade fiber-optic connection costs $1,000 a month, and a DSL/cable modem hookup isn't available in her rural town (60 miles southwest of Nashville).

To facilitate a fix for the lack of access problem, groups such as Washington, D.C.-based Connected Nation, aim to spread the "broadband gospel" in small towns while convincing companies like Comcast and AT&T of the benefits of rural investment. State-specific branches, like Connected Tennessee, work to inform states about how to maximize their federal stimulus funding, and increase their broadband availability and adoption rates, including mapping of remote and rural areas. Data they've collected (see below) shows that Centerville, in Hickman county, is a severely underserved rural place needing broadband access (significantly lower than the statewide average).

Graphic and data from Connected Nation website:

Even in light of broadband's outstanding potential for rural communities, there are critics who think that the benefits aren't all they're cracked up to be. Analysts often fail to factor into the "economic benefit" number, the amount of time that users spend on online entertainment rather than on economically productive activities like shopping or banking. Others voice disappointment with the time it took the federal government to issue the stimulus money. They lament that jobs won't come soon enough - laying fiber-optic lines will have to wait until after the winter freeze.

Despite these complaints, it's hard to argue that access to broadband isn't essential. Whether the lines go in now or in the spring, this service is vital not only in helping rural communities with distance learning, telemedicine, and real-time pricing for farmers, but in fostering successful manufacturing industries and a stable middle class. Back in Dawsonville, Vice President Biden had it right when he said, "New broadband access means more capacity and better reliability in rural areas . . . Businesses will be able to improve their customer service and better compete around the world."

Whether it's middle mile or last mile projects, it is about time that these rural projects get funded and that rural communities get reliable, high-speed access to all the benefits that the Internet offers. Take it from Dwight Sullivan, a self-described "reformed rowdy redneck," also interviewed by Hesseldahl. Sullivan operates a 250-acre cattle ranch, works in real estate, runs a cardboard-box distribution business on the side and moonlights on the local school board and Chamber of Commerce. He's stuck with dial-up access at home, where he frequently gets calls from potential home buyers who want to see pictures of properties. It takes him less time to drive 12 miles to his office and send the images than to do it from home.


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