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Broadband: The Linchpin of the Future for Rural Economies

I was honored to host a panel last week at the Department of Agriculture’s Ag Outlook Forum to showcase the impact of USDA broadband programs on so many in rural communities. Our February 25th Rural Development panel, “Building a Stronger Rural Infrastructure: Broadband,” portrayed the ripple effect these investments have.

We heard from Luis Reyes, CEO of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, which has provided electric power to consumers since WWII. They got into the broadband business because they recognized a need. Like many with a sense of community and knowledge of how broadband affects economic development, they successfully applied for Recovery Act broadband funding from USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS), a Rural Development agency. “This will ultimately change the landscape of New Mexico,” Luis told the audience. “This is an opportunity for us to partner with colleges, health care facilities and the community to expand businesses, hire more employees, build markets and improve healthcare. To think that a small co-op in New Mexico can turn a project into a model program nationwide is exciting.”

Mary McCarthy, nurse manager of Critical Care Connection at the Eastern Maine Medical Center explained how a Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant from RUS helped build a network to treat cancer patients, saving them from driving 200 miles for medical services. “Telemedicine can save lives,” Mary said. “As a nurse, I never would have thought I would have been involved in telemedicine. Technology is not my forte,” she noted, with chuckles from the audience.”Grants are very important because rural areas cannot afford to finance these services. This investment saves lives, saves money and improves care.”

Larry Sevier, CEO of Rural Telephone, said that with the help of RUS, they have served small Kansas communities since 1952. “Our headquarters is in Lenore, population 300. Our service territory is 7,500 square miles with an average of less than two people per square mile. We used RUS loans to help schools share top teachers, tap into Fort Hayes State University for advanced math and science classes, and tie our hospital to rural clinics. We are providing free service to rural libraries to help those who cannot afford broadband service. Our businesses can now market their products worldwide, 24-7. Broadband is a catalyst for economic development in rural communities,”

Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, explained that the key to getting broadband deployed in remote communities is teaching residents the value of broadband and how it can provide a payoff in the future. “You need access to financing. RUS laid the groundwork for voice communications 60 years ago when large companies did not want to serve rural communities because of the costs involved. Policy solutions often fail to understand the value of growing rural areas. For a very small cost, there is great economic impact. We need to stress how important rural areas are to the U.S. economy.”

These are good examples why RUS will continue to work to finance strategies that revitalize rural economies and build tomorrow’s opportunities. To find out more about how USDA can help your community achieve its broadband goals, click here.

3 Responses to “Broadband: The Linchpin of the Future for Rural Economies”

  1. Caleb says:

    If it is a linchpin, then please go beyond just the loan side to create true incentive for private development in rural areas.

  2. Chrys Ostrander says:

    Last week I received a letter in my mailbox from HughesNet Internet satellite company (I think many, many folks in rural parts of the region received these mailers based on the fact that I found one in my mailbox here in Cheney, Wa as well as in my old mailbox out in Davenport, Wa). The mailer states “The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was officially enacted by Congress, to help achieve a longstanding goal of making high-speed Internet access available to millions of American households. Utilizing these funds, the Federal Government combined with HughesNet services widespread availability is helping to bring high-speed Internet to areas that have been underserved.” It also says “Your address is eligible for high-speed Internet service benefits under the Recovery Act Funds [including] free standard installation, no upfront or monthly equipment fees, new affordable monthly service plans.” It gives a toll free number and a “Recovery Act Code” that’s supposed to speed up your order.

    Let me tell you unequivocally that providing funds to mitigate the problem of rural areas being under-served in terms of access to high-speed, broadband Internet service by providing satellite Internet service is NOT THE WAY to go about it.

    As a long-time user of Satellite Internet (because it has been the only service available to me in the two rural areas of the Inland Northwest where I’ve lived that even approaches “high-speed, broadband service”), let me tell you Satellite Internet is an inadequate alternative to cable Internet or DSL Internet service. Satellite Internet service has a very low ceiling when it comes to the amount of bandwidth you are allowed to use in any given 30-day period. Cable and DSL Internet service have ofteb offer unlimited “bandwidth” (that’s the term for how much upload and download data you can use). While it’s true you can pay more for faster service and/or more bandwidth with satellite, that gets very expensive, very fast. The satellite service plan I use is one step above the least expensive option offered by my satellite Internet service provider. It costs $69.95 a month (ouch!) and all I get is 1 MB per second download speed, 200 KB per second upload speed, 12,000 MB download limit per 30-day period (basic service is 7500 MB download limit per 30-day period) and 3000 MB upload limit per 30-day period (basic service is 2300 MB upload per 30-day period). I’m a moderate Internet user but I wouldn’t consider myself a “power user” and I still hit the ceiling with my high-priced plan. I’m a farmer (farmers use the Internet routinely in our business). I work for a non-profit (lots of emailing and attachments) and I manage its website. I watch YouTube every so often and I have a 12 yr-old daughter who uses the Internet (and does not over-do it). Right now, as “punishment” for hitting my usage ceiling, my internet speed has been reduced to a crawl until I drop below 70% of my allowed usage fore the current 30-day period. So I have to scale back. On top of that, because of the slow-down, many web pages take so long to load the connection times out on a regular basis. Even when my service is running at full speed, my daughter and I cannot watch on-demand streaming movies with our NetFlix account (NetFlix lets customers with even its lowest-priced, one-mailed-DVD-at-a-time plan like me watch an unlimited number of streaming movies).

    Okay, so, more reasons why the federal program should NOT rely on satellite Internet service to expand high-speed, broadband Internet service to under-served rural areas are: The lag time inherent in satellite Internet connections (the delay time between sending and receiving that is an insurmountable factor having to do with the vast physical distances involved) precludes using the Internet for inexpensive internet phone calling (VOIP), real-time conferencing or webinars (which are becoming a very popular way for farmers to improve their knowledge and skills).

    What we need to have instead of this dumb satellite idea is for fiber-optic cables and telephone substations (needed for DSL service) and possibly wireless networks installed as needed in ALL rural areas (wireless networks only as long as there aren’t any bandwidth limitations on the service — and remember, wireless networks that involve the use of antenna towers on the ground are limited by “line-of-sight”. If you can’t see the tower, you won’t get the signal).

    I’m contacting my congressional delegation to lodge my complaint.

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