Monday, March 23, 2009

Providing Rural Internet Access in Stimulus a Waste of Taxpayer Money? Republicans Should Read This...

The Journal Sentinel article “Rural areas hope stimulus package includes funds for broadband” by Rick Barrett, shines a spotlight on the necessity of bringing high speed internet to rural areas of the country. Remember, this was considered a waste of taxpayer money in the recently passed stimulus bill.

From his home in Richland County, Jordan Maclay (a) retired quantum physics professor is among thousands of rural Wisconsin residents frustrated over a lack of fast, reliable access to the Web for business and personal use. With a little luck, that could change. Maclay says the satellite-based broadband at his home is inadequate and unreliable for downloading large files and participating in online video conferences. It's also not suitable for his wife, Mary, who works from home as an inventory analyst for Rockwell Automation Inc.

Maclay … drives to Richland Center to use high-speed service at the University of Wisconsin Extension's library. "It's a problem for those of us living out in the sticks. We just don't have a lot of options," he said.

The federal economic stimulus bill includes $7.2 billion in grants, loans and loan guarantees to extend broadband Internet to underserved rural areas. Currently, rural dial-up Internet service (is) a slow-speed connection (and) satellite-based service (is) costly and less reliable … in urban areas. But under the stimulus spending, telecom companies and government entities will be eligible for grants and loans to extend broadband into rural areas.

Coverage gaps in rural areas are a problem as businesses and individuals increasingly turn to the Internet for everything from online sales to entertainment. The lack of broadband access has put children in rural schools at a competitive disadvantage. "… they do not have access to the Internet that allows them to work at home on homework and projects for school." Unable to quickly access podcasts, videos and Webinars, these children are a step behind in a technological society.

The FCC assumes that if one house in a ZIP code has broadband access from a certain provider, then everyone in that area has the same access. They also define high-speed Internet as anything that's slightly faster than a basic dial-up connection, including satellite service.

Tom Jackson, a staff member with state Sen. Dale Schultz (said), "We have plenty of working professionals in our district who would like to be able to work from home but can't because they lack broadband access." Rural businesses also struggle with not having high-speed Internet. Maple Leaf Cheese Cooperative is located less than a mile from where broadband service provided by TDS Telecom ends. "It's nearly impossible to run a business on a dial-up connection," said Paul Reigle, a master cheesemaker with Maple Leaf Cheese. Satellite service isn't reliable for sending large graphic files to customers, said Dave Knapp, owner of New Farm Inc., an agricultural products company in Mineral Point.

Internet providers say they can't afford to extend broadband coverage to rural areas where there are a limited number of subscribers.

Expansion projects could get under way soon, once stimulus money starts flowing from the federal Rural Utilities Service and the National Technology Information Agency. "The whole idea of the stimulus is to get it done fast," said Gary Evenson, administrator of the PSC telecommunications division.

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