Broadband in rural America: Why I'm not holding my breath

Despite promising new technologies and federal stimulus money, the rural U.S. remains the land that telecom forgot

I live in the country amidst rich forests, abundant wildlife, clear starry nights and a silence so deep it often stuns visitors from the city. The price I pay: really crappy Internet access.

I'm a technology journalist who works at home, so I should have fast, reliable access. I don't. And while last year's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. the stimulus package) included $7.2 billion to increase the availability of broadband in rural areas, I'm not holding my breath.

Welcome to the land that telecommunications forgot.

The stimulus money undoubtedly will lead to reasonably priced, reliable broadband for some rural dwellers who currently don't have it. And normal market expansion will help others. But out here in the stunningly beautiful but sparsely populated ridges and valleys of southwestern Wisconsin, as for much of the rural United States, the dream of ubiquitous broadband is likely to remain just that -- a dream -- for years to come.

The reason is a combination of geography, market forces, the limitations of broadband technologies and sheer bad luck.

The limits of current technologies

Many urban dwellers think of "rural" as those places at the distant edges of cities where houses are separated by a couple of acres. To me, though, those are the suburbs. In contrast, the town I live in is roughly the geographical size of Manhattan and has a population of about 1,000. And therein lies one of the reasons I don't have reliable, cheap broadband.

With wired broadband technology -- DSL and cable -- there must be enough customers to make it financially worthwhile for a vendor to extend service out from population centers. The nearest village is just four miles away, and even with only 1,000 residents, it has cable and DSL. However, that wired broadband doesn't come anywhere near me because I don't have enough neighbors.

"There are a lot of criteria (for extending service), not just population," says Brian Peterson, vice president of engineering at Frontier Communications, which specializes in providing telephone and broadband access to rural areas. "But we do look at the number of potential customers and how spread out they are."

Wireless technologies have more promise, but they don't work in my particular situation either. The primary reason for this is geography. Although the nearby village has long-range, high-speed WiMax service that reaches far into the country, it works only where there is a clear line of sight to the WiMax antenna on top of the village's water tower. That means that some of my neighbors who live on the ridges have access to it, but those of us who live in the valleys don't.

National carrier Sprint and partner Clearwire Communications have plans to deploy WiMax in many urban areas across the nation; their service is already available in almost 30 cities. However, Sprint and Clearwire have no plans to deploy the technology outside of urban areas.

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