Stimulus funding brings broadband to rural homes, schools

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:

• 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.”

• In Colorado, mountains and vast stretches between farms and ranches on the plains have made it difficult for companies to justify spending millions of dollars to lay fiber-optic cable to connect far-flung residents.

There, a public-private partnership won $100 million in stimulus money to try to expand high-speed internet access to all Colorado school districts and to libraries and key institutions across the state. Some of the money will go to laying fiber and erecting new microwave towers to deliver broadband into areas that need them.

• In Texas, where 96 percent of households have broadband, $8 million in stimulus money is funding a five-year effort that includes mapping, data collection, and technical assistance in hopes of reaching the 285,550 now-unserved households. Dave Osborn, CEO of Valley Telephone Cooperative Inc., said his company serves an area of roughly 1,700 square miles in south Texas with a population of 30,000. Stimulus money is key, he says.

“It takes a whole lot of money to serve this [population],” Osborn said. “At the end of the day, there’s no way I can spend $14,000 on a line and bill a customer $16 a month. We couldn’t do it without [the federal dollars].”

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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