Real Life: How broadband came to my rural neighborhood

Frances called me, and I called Ingrid. That's how word spread that AT&T DSL had come to our rural quarter outside Nevada City in northern California.

It was with giddy excitement that I signed up for the service. Gone were the monthly satellite bills of $59.99. Gone was a dismal upload speed that often made me wonder if dial-up would be faster. Gone was the need to climb my 28-foot ladder to the second-story roof and sweep out the dish whenever snow accumulated. As a long-time Web worker, I finally had it made.

But why now? What inspired AT&T Inc. contract techs to finally turn on the big blinking remote terminal No. 16963 sitting at the end of Newtown Road? The search for an answer exposes how broadband is slowly threading its way across rural America -- with and without the help of the major telecommunications firms and cable companies. The way it works in real life may give you hope that one day you too will be able to put away your extension ladder.

Don't count on the heavy cavalry helping out -- they're heading out of town

With a penetration rate of 53%, up from 20% just four years ago, broadband is one of the fastest "products" to be adopted in the history of the U.S., according to Bruce Leichtman, president and principal analyst at Leichtman Research Group Inc.. Most of that market belongs to cable and telephone companies, which had a total of 58 million subscribers at the end of June. AT&T leads the way, with 13 million subscribers, with Comcast Corp. a close second.

In fact, said Leichtman, by now nine out of 10 Americans have access to cable, digital subscriber line or both. That makes a lack of broadband "solely a rural problem," he said, one that major providers are increasingly choosing to walk away from. He pointed to the sale of Verizon's wire-line business, including Internet service, in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont to FairPoint Communications Inc. earlier this year. "They don't want that business," he said. "The biggest companies are looking for the density -- and not from a consumer standpoint, but from a business standpoint. It's all about profitability."

While some people may not want Verizon Communications Inc. leaving their states, Leichtman doesn't buy into the idea that a community can put pressure on potential providers. "There's no franchise agreement like you have in cable," he said. "In order to get a franchise, cable companies were told, 'You have to wire up the entire town for cable.' That was part of the agreement. ... In the meantime, telcos are trying to get into video [services] without local franchises. They have no requirements to wire up a specific community. ... It's very hard to say to AT&T, 'You have to wire up here.'"

Generate a competitive spirit to see what the fallout is

Russ Steele, who probably knows more about broadband in Nevada County, Calif., than anyone else outside AT&T, said the only reason he has cable broadband is because his wife noticed the guy stringing cable to the property next to theirs. "She asked if we were going to get it," Steele recalled. "He said, 'Where do you live?' She said, 'Just down there.' So they put a little stub down my driveway. That's how it happens."

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