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

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Is there help on the horizon?

Politicians have long promised universal Internet access throughout the U.S. The reasons for this are noble: Internet access has become an essential part of economic development, which often lags in rural areas. Plus, it helps rural kids get a better education and opens opportunities such as distance learning for rural residents of all ages. And decent health care often depends on fast Internet access.

"If [medical providers] want to file Medicare or Medicaid claims, they increasingly have to do it electronically," says Professor Sharon Strover of the College of Communication at the University of Texas. If health care providers can't do that, they often can't provide health care service in a specific geographical area, she says.

Broadband in rural areas also helps local businesses and those who use those businesses, Strover adds. "I just saw a study on rural [grocery stores], and some of them are being forced to get broadband connectivity because suppliers can't supply them unless they do inventory in that way," she says.

The stimulus funds will indeed help some communities, Strover and other experts agree. However, 100% rural access to broadband will remain elusive for years to come.

"While universal broadband coverage is an admirable goal, it is not a feasible one for the near-term future," says Joseph P. Fuhr Jr., a professor of economics at Widener University. He cites an FCC study that calculated that truly universal high-speed access in the U.S. could cost as much as $350 billion, a number that dwarfs the $7.2 billion in the stimulus package. Fuhr says that the chances of the government making up that difference are "slim."

Indeed, the FCC's National Broadband Plan, which will be sent to Congress in March, will call for 100Mbit/sec. Internet service to 100 million homes by 2020. As groups such as the Consumer Federation of America point out, that plan will leave 30 million U.S. homes out in the cold. Guess where most of those homes will be?

Peterson of Frontier Communications claims that his company has a much higher penetration rate -- about 92% -- in the rural areas it serves than those of other telcos. Yet he agrees that getting that figure to 100% will be difficult. "Increasing overall penetration to 100% will be challenging and very costly due to the distance between locations and the diverse terrain," he says.

And even when broadband is deployed in sparsely populated areas, he added, it usually is slower than broadband available in the city. Because such service is more costly and less profitable for providers, they tend to deploy less expensive, slower equipment, according to Peterson.

"In our [rural] markets, the higher priority is availability, not necessarily speed," he says. "Our rural market customers are looking for high-speed Internet at 1Mbit/sec. as a necessity and are excited when we can offer 3Mbit/sec."

Yes, I'd be excited with 3Mbit/sec. service, given the woeful state of my current Internet access. And, as it happens, Frontier will soon be my telephone company. My current telecom provider is Verizon, which sold its landline and broadband assets in many rural areas, including mine, to Frontier last year. That deal is expected to close in early summer.

So, Brian, will I get broadband service after Frontier becomes my provider?

At first Peterson was hesitant to answer, saying he wasn't familiar with my specific situation. Then he added, "I'd give it a 90% chance of happening in the next three years."

Wow! That's some grounds for hope. In the meantime, though, I still have the silence, the forests, the prairies, the wildlife and the night skies full of stars. When I think of it that way, I realize my situation is actually pretty good.

I can wait.

David Haskin is a country-dwelling journalist who specializes in mobile and wireless technology.

Editor's note: Responding to the author's complaints of network slowdowns and poor technical support, a HughesNet representative said: "It is our goal to ensure that technical issues do not go unresolved ... We do not want any of our customers to feel they aren't being listened to or their problems aren't being resolved." The representative offered to work with the author to address his service issues; the author has not yet had time to follow up.

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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