Rural Americans long to be linked

Tyson, a lifelong resident of Morton, says her home broadband connection — provided by a local phone cooperative — was so unreliable that she discontinued it three years ago. "It just wasn't worth it to me," she says. There are no other broadband providers in her area.

Tyson still uses the Internet at work. Her favorite sites are those that offer health information — she is particularly fond of the ones where consumers can submit questions to doctors — and advice about animals. (She's owned horses, cows and dogs through the years.)

"If you get that information off the Internet," she says, "you don't have to travel miles and pay a lot" to doctors and vets.

Once she retires, however, her Internet connection will go away. Tyson says she's not looking forward to that.

The Internet "would be the first thing that I would miss," she says, adding: "You can only get so much information off the TV."

Brenda Shaw, Morton's city manager, buys home broadband from the same telephone cooperative that Tyson dumped three years ago. Shaw says she's also had reliability problems. But since there are no other providers in her area, she puts up with it.

"We don't have a lot of choice around here," she says.

Small towns, big need

Plains City Administrator Terry Howard says he'd love to see a big carrier come into town. Given all the pent-up demand in Plains, he thinks whoever showed up would get a lot of business. But so far, there have been no takers.

Howard says he doesn't blame big carriers for not wanting to come to small towns such as Plains, allowing that they're probably not the most lucrative. Still, he wishes somebody would.

"They have their reasons, but that isn't helping us," he says.

Plains, meantime, is struggling. According to Howard, businesses won't even look at relocating here because broadband options are so limited. People who have home-based businesses are also stuck. Because the reliability of local broadband is so spotty, he says, trying to do even the most basic tasks — such as taking an online college class — can be an exercise in misery.

With nothing to shore up the local economy, the town's population is dwindling rapidly — by 100 people every 10 years or so, Howard guesses. Plains has about 1,450 residents currently.

Unless something changes, Plains will eventually become a town of "90-year-olds," he predicts.

Schooler, echoing the comments of other locals, says she hopes lawmakers won't forget about towns such as Plains and Morton when it comes to broadband.

"Every time you put a bite of beef in your mouth or a cotton T-shirt on your back, it came from rural America," Schooler says, her voice welling with pride. "We are one country. We feed you; you take care of us."

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