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 video conferencing 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.”
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.
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 would spur economic growth, boost educational opportunities, and create jobs. The money has jump-started what were existing efforts by states and telecommunications 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 eMail 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.