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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Broadband Internet Service:  Do You Have It?  Do You Want It?


What technology are you using to read this?  Is it a high speed line entering your farm office?  Is it a microwave link atop your local grain elevator?  Is it a satellite dish facing the southern sky?  Or is it a telephone line that worked hard to download the page in less than three minutes?  Since your spouse with the off-farm job uses the Internet constantly with speed and ease, you know that the trip from town crosses the digital divide.  Rural America, and particularly farm homes have found themselves on the “wrong side of the tracks” when it comes to high speed or broadband Internet service, something that many organizations are attempting to correct.

While there are many efforts underway to upgrade Internet service to rural homes, are any advancements being made?  That is addressed by researchers from Clemson and Oklahoma State Universities in the recent issue of Choices magazine.  They contend that, “communities and businesses without the most up-to-date advanced telecommunications infrastructure will likely suffer economically and socially. Improving the supply of, and demand for, broadband Internet access in rural America is crucial for future economic development opportunities.”  The definition of Broadband is 200 kilobits per second, which is four times faster than telephone dial up systems.  But the Federal Communications Commission has reset the standards for basic broadband at 768 kilobits per second.  For homes closer to a town or city, some cable and DSL lines may provide service, but unless the carrier can be guaranteed a minimum number of subscribers within a certain distance, those lines will not be extended.  The researchers said, “If education and income levels do not make up for the penalty of distance, existing telecommunications providers often do not find it profitable to provide advanced services to lower density populations without additional subsidy.”  Putting up a new challenge to extending those lines is the sharp increases in mobile broadband by rural families not wanting to wait for wires to be extended.

The latest national data from 2009 indicates that 66% of urban residents had adopted broadband service, compared to only 51% of rural residents.  But a closer look indicates that some states such as Utah, New Hampshire, and Alaska have 73% of their rural residents served by broadband, but the rate is only 42% in Mississippi, 48% in Alabama, and 51% in Arkansas.  One of the disparities is not availability, but a sense of need by the potential subscribers.  Another reason is the cost, and the researchers say, “Improving competition among providers should lead to lower prices and higher reliability, positively impacting adoption rates in rural areas.” 

In addition to the service that broadband can provide to a farm attempting to be profitable, are the services that are needed for improved quality of life in rural communities.  That includes such things as enhanced community interactions, telemedicine, distance education, and telework.  One study indicated a $500,000 savings for a community when it became connected to a telemedicine network.  Education and jobs are another area and the researchers say there is tremendous potential to leverage broadband technology for the enhanced delivery of adult education and college-level courses in public school systems across rural communities. Superior educational and job training resources also have the potential to improve rural labor resources and thereby enhance rural economic development prospects.

So if the benefits are known, and there is an effort to cover the nation with a broadband network, does that include every community and every home?  Where does the wire stop if the last home on the line is many miles away and the cost for the DSL line would never be covered by the subscription fee?  The researchers found, “Unfortunately, the status quo system of broadband providers is unlikely to offer service to the most rural communities or enhance existing service in already underserved rural areas. Current suppliers operate under a complex array of government regulations, subsidies, and market protection, which provide little incentive for these firms to alter the status quo structure.”  Part of the shortage of service may be covered by the $7.2 billion allocated by the federal government for broadband service as part of the economic stimulus package.

While many advances have been made in the past decade, there are many holes in the US where broadband Internet service does not exist, and may not for some time to come.  While the benefits are widely known, the pressure for expansion of service may be limited by return on investment by service carriers as well as actual demand from customers.  Some do not see a need, and others may not care about a wire since they are already on a mobile broadband service.  The federal government has appropriated funds to jump-start expansion of broadband, but it may be months or years before your home is connected.

Posted by Stu Ellis on 03/22 at 12:00 AM | Permalink

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