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Thursday, February 03, 2011

Broadband Internet Service:  Are You Anxious For It Or Apathetic About It?


While some of these Farmgate posts make it into print, in all likelihood you are reading this over an Internet connection.  It may be a dial-up system that took several minutes to download and appear on your computer screen.  Or it may have come via a fiber optic network that took a fraction of a second to load into your computer.  Somewhere in between those digital bookends will be found the bulk of rural computer users, all of whom want something faster than they can either afford or find available to them.  But much of that will soon be changing.

Although many farm homes will use the Internet to check market prices and weather, others will be watching You Tube videos for either education or entertainment.  Others will be updating their Facebook page to let their far-flung family know what is happening.  And others will be searching for new recipes, pricing seed, or looking for a part for their broken mower.  James Barnes of Louisiana State University, writing in Choices (an electronic magazine) says only 29% of the global population uses the Internet and 92% of global Internet users have not used Facebook.  You may surprisingly find yourself in a minority, despite your 56 kb dial up speed.

Speed is the issue du jour when it comes to the Internet, and your desire for a quicker response from the Internet is determined by whether you have “broadband” service or not.  Broadband is 768 bytes per second and up to 1.5 megabytes per second.  In 2001 41% of the US Internet users were on a dial-up system with 6% on broadband.  Today the trend is 5% on dial up and 66% on broadband.  If you are close enough to a community to be connected to the cable system, your speed may be 1 megabyte per second, which is equated to satellite and DSL system.  If you want to download a new catalog from an equipment maker that is 5 megabytes in size, that would take 16 minutes on a dial-up system, one minute by satellite, cable or DSL, and one second by a fiber connection.  Barnes says the modest gains in broadband speeds using cable and DSL are improvements, but the information that will come in the 21st Century will require US citizens to have greater speeds capacity.

A global study of download speeds per 100 inhabitants placed the US in sixth position, behind South Korea, Japan, Sweden, and the Netherlands.  Korea and Japan make more use of fiber than is available in the US.  Barnes says it is ironic that the Internet was created in the US, but we fall behind other nations in adoption and speed.  He says, “The average DSL (1.5 to 3.0 mbps) price paid in the United States equaled $30-50 per month and cable (3-5 mbps) slightly more at $40-50. The average cost of a broadband connection capable of 26 mbps speed equaled only $22. The takeaway from this analysis is the Japanese have 8.5 times the speed at 1/12 the cost.”  Barnes is quick to say that only 50% of rural Americans have a broadband connection at home that is equal to 70% of urban Americans.  What does the “digital divide” say about rural Americans?  Barnes says, “This implies that comparing economic and demographic factors in isolation, rather than examining how they interact to understand rural broadband adoption, is not warranted.”

But why are rural American’s 20% behind their urban counterparts?  Barnes quotes a government study from November that half of rural Internet users asked about broadband replied “Don’t need it, not interested.”  23% said they did not have a computer that could use it, and 16% said it was too expensive.  Barnes wonders if the advantages of broadband may not be well understood by potential users.  For rural areas to be better served, Barnes says it may take an initiative of an educational nature or an initiative by a governmental entity.  But 60% of the non-broadband users in rural areas said they would need some type of assistance to use it effectively.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that bailed out Wall Street, banks, and many corporations also contained $7 billion for broadband infrastructure construction over the next four years to go along with educational initiatives.  Barnes says, “An important step that land-grant university faculty can take to encourage rural broadband adoption is to teach rural entrepreneurs how to use such social media as Facebook, Twitter, Wordpress, Google, and more. Equally important is to teach how to use mobile applications for business.”  And he says it may take time to determine if government expenditures and community training initiatives really pay off.

Although the US developed the Internet, its technical sophistication is behind other developed countries, and its use in rural areas is holding it back.  The prime reason is the lack of infrastructure in rural areas to provide higher speeds of Internet service, but rural Americans are not engaged in heavy lobbying to get better service.  The reasons for the poorer service, compared to urban areas, may be lack of understanding of what higher Internet speeds can do, and how to use the higher speed.  Government investment will be upgrading rural broadband access, but there is some uncertainty about how it will be received.

Posted by Stu Ellis on 02/03 at 11:38 PM | Permalink

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