Rural Americans long to be linked

The people who live here are still waiting for the digital revolution to arrive.

The local phone company, Windstream, offers high-speed DSL service in part of Plains (population: around 1,450). But those who live outside the city limits, including farmers such as Jeff Roper, don't have a lot of choice.

Roper currently uses ERF Wireless, which provides service in more remote areas. He says the service, which costs $40 a month for a 1.5-megabit connection, is pretty good, though it sometimes goes down for days at a time.

To help run his 2,400-acre farm, he spent $65,000 on equipment for a satellite-based GPS service for his tractors, useful for navigation in the field. Broadband, handy for a variety of diagnostic and operational purposes such as irrigation and real-time weather monitoring, isn't available — so Roper and other farmers in this West Texas community do without.

Rural folks aren't prone to complain, Roper says. They work hard, love their communities and wouldn't think of living anywhere else. But that doesn't mean they don't want, and need, to be connected to the outside world.

"Just because we live in rural America doesn't mean we shouldn't have broadband," says Roper, a third-generation peanut farmer. "We're all Americans. We shouldn't be treated less than anyone else."

Congress agrees, and has allocated $7.2 billion in economic stimulus funding to support broadband deployment across the USA. The goal: to help drive broadband penetration in places such as Plains, which have long lagged urban areas in terms of choice, quality and cost.

By pushing hard on broadband, lawmakers hope to close the "digital divide" that has long separated rural America. In doing so, they hope to give rural consumers access to the same sorts of high-speed services and opportunities — think telemedicine, distance-learning and Web-based commerce — that city dwellers have enjoyed for years.

There's also the social divide to consider. While websites such as Facebook and Twitter might seem like mere entertainment, they also turn the Internet into a town hall meeting that spans the globe. Broadband is essential to that cultural shift, and to making sure consumers can participate.

The biggest argument in favor of rural broadband, however, can be boiled down to two words: job creation.

The way President Obama sees it, broadband is the future of the USA. According to non-profit Connected Nation, in Washington, a 7% increase in broadband penetration in underserved parts of the country could stimulate the economy by more than $134 billion. Benefits would accrue from the creation of jobs, commerce and other intangibles — such as fuel savings of non-commuters working from home — that would follow.

To realize that dream, however, broadband needs to become a ubiquitous service, such as power or water.

The problem: High-speed Internet access is far from pervasive in rural America, home to more than 60 million consumers. The average cost of broadband in the USA is about $45 a month, but fees in rural areas can run much higher.

Currently, about 57% of urban households and 60% of suburban households subscribe to broadband. In rural areas, only 38% do, according to a report by the Communications Workers of America.

"As a country, we're basically punishing people for living where they want to live," says Vince Jordan, CEO of Ridgeview Telephone, a small Colorado-based carrier that caters to rural customers.

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