One’s reach should exceed one’s grasp, advised poet Robert Browning. In keeping with that admonition, it will be interesting to see how the Bush administration manages its stated promise of universal broadband access in the United States by 2007, all the while slashing funding to achieve that goal.
If you live in a town with a cable TV system or a telephone switching center, chances are you have access to some variety of broadband for high speed Internet service.
If you’re in a small town or rural area where there are no TV cable or DSL phone lines, options are far more limited and (usually) far more expensive. Recent statistics indicate 32 percent of Internet users in metropolitan areas had access to broadband, but only 8 percent in rural areas. Less than 1 percent of towns under 1,000 population had cable access; none had DSL.
The 2002 farm bill included a $2 billion program to provide low interest loans for broadband access in rural communities of 20,000 or fewer people. There hasn’t been a land rush of companies wanting to set up systems; low population densities make the business inherently risky.
Even so, several ventures, mostly based on wireless technology, have sprung up around the country. In Texas, a company got a $13 million USDA loan to bring high speed wireless Internet service to 100 rural communities via microwave radio networks. Their medium fast 200 kb service goes for $29.95 and their premium 400 kb service is $49.95, charges comparable to in-town cable/DSL. Similar systems are in operation in Appalachian states, in the Far West, and elsewhere.
For many rural areas, however, about the only option for broadband is via a satellite dish, and that can be pretty pricey, with substantial installation fees and monthly charges often more than double cable or DSL. Satellite speeds can also be significantly reduced by the number of users, weather conditions, and other factors.
Former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell, in a speech last year at Knoxville, Tenn., said the president’s goal of making advanced broadband service “available and affordable to all Americans by 2007,” means “the quality of life for our citizens is going to improve dramatically as we spread this technology all across America.”
Broadband availability, he said, is particularly critical to rural areas for “attracting new businesses and giving existing businesses the availability to compete with firms in urban settings. With broadband access, worker productivity increases, jobs are created, and wages, and the tax base grow.”
However, the Bush budget proposal presented this year would cut the broadband loan assistance by 34 percent (not to mention substantial cuts for basic services to rural America, such as clean water, fire protection, health care, etc.) In the meantime, the United States slips further in broadband access rankings among nations, going from third place a few years ago to 13th now.
Modern agriculture has become very technology- and very information-dependent; farmers have as much need for broadband access as other businesses.
2007 isn’t that far away; if rural America is to be broadband-enabled by then, a lot of work needs to be done quite quickly.