Rural Americans long to be linked

Jordan says it isn't unusual for rural phone companies to charge $300 to $600 for a broadband installation. The fees cover the cost of dispatching a crew to wire up a home for DSL, which works off existing copper phone lines. In urban markets, installation is often free.

Why so pricey? In the broadband world, the more subscribers you have, the more quickly you can recover costs. In rural areas, 20 phone lines or fewer per square mile isn't unusual, so that can take a long time.

Ridgeview charges $30 for a broadband installation. Because it charges so little, Jordan says, it can take his company eight months to recover its costs. "But we also get a lot more customers" as a result, he says.

Dean Cubley, CEO of ERF Wireless, says he's heartened by the national push to bring rural areas into the 21st century. But he worries that public-policymakers aren't equipped to come up with realistic solutions.

"A lot of people think rural America is where the road narrows from four lanes to two lanes," says Cubley, who grew up on a farm in East Texas. "Rural America is where you drive off the gravel road to get to the farm house; it's where you have to get in a car and drive to visit your neighbors," he says. "Millions of people live that way. And they need broadband just like everybody else."

Online at school, late nights

You'll get no argument from Fredda Schooler, the school superintendent in Morton (population: around 2,000). There are 459 students in the town, and many have never ventured very far. Schooler says some of her students have never even been to Lubbock (population: around 250,000), about 70 miles east of here.

For these kids, she says, the Internet provides an invaluable window to the rest of the world. "It opens up a new dimension that would otherwise not be available," Schooler says.

Pat McNabb, a local librarian, agrees. With the Internet, she says, kids can "reach out and explore beyond the boundaries of a small town. They can access anything they can dream about."

Using state and federal grants, Morton set up a wireless broadband network for the school a few years ago. Grants also enabled it to buy 200 laptop computers. The system connects to a tech center in Lubbock via a T1 data line; the cost of the connection is also covered by the state.

Students are allowed to take laptops home with them. But since most homes don't have broadband, Schooler says, there's nothing to connect to once they get there.

To get around that problem, the school stays open three nights a week, until 9 p.m. That way, she says, kids can do homework and work on other online projects. Then they pile into buses and go home, only to come back the next day, at 8:30.

Schooler says she wishes things could be easier.

"We shouldn't have to jump through as many hoops as we have to jump through" to get broadband, she says.

Beverly Mills, who lives in nearby Loop (population: about 300), says it isn't unusual for home Internet connections in her town to go down — for weeks. Mills says she used to enjoy reading books online, but gave up because her home connection was so unreliable.

What does she do now?

"We do without," she says. "That's just life here."

Rita Tyson, 66, the county clerk for Cochran County, where Morton is located, has a similar story.

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