The Importance of Rural Broadband

Carl Weinschenk

Many of the conversations about the broadband stimulus and other moves to improve access in rural areas tend to be academic exercises that have as much to do with politics and public policy as they do with the lives of real people.

But it is all about real people. The bottom line is that bringing broadband to rural areas-one of the key goals of the stimulus, rural telcos and more recent moves by the Obama administration to reform the Universal Service Fund and to promote rural wireless-will have a profound impact on millions of Americans. It is important to remember that these are folks who are at a real disadvantage because they live in areas where jobs are scarce and travel is expensive. A robust broadband connection to homes or communities can make a world of difference.

This Connected Planet piece has some good news for these folks. The increase in broadband connectivity and speeds, the piece says, is enabling companies to bring customer service representatives back from overseas. It is only a trickle at this point. The piece focuses on a company called Caleris, which has established contact centers in the Iowa towns of Manning, Jefferson and Newton. The story says that the initiative is possible due to a statewide fiber network from which Caleris leases capacity.

Whether the source is government largesse or private industry, bringing great capacity to rural areas is a matter of basic fairness. In an unexpected piece of good news, the U.S. Department of Agriculture soon will distribute several hundred million dollars-the story wasn't more specific-to rural broadband. The unexpected, and strange, element is that the money was included in the 2008 Farm Bill. The National Journal explains the gift from the past:

But why wait three years to make the announcement? Distribution of the funding was stalled after the 2009 economic stimulus program required Agriculture to help disseminate $7.2 billion in broadband-related loans and grants, Vilsack said. Agriculture also needed time to address concerns raised by the department's Inspector General that the criteria for eligibility under the 2008 program needed to be tightened to ensure the money would reach areas that are truly rural, and have few or no other service providers.

The energy in the broadband arena-particularly wireless-is strong. Indeed, a world is emerging where people can work as customer service representatives, tutors and in other capacities from their homes. The human element quickly is obvious: Imagine a single parent who to this point faced the difficult task of finding daycare and driving for hours to reach a job-if one can be found-suddenly being able to simply put junior to bed and make a living from the den, and to do so without travel or babysitting expenses.

Not all the news is good, however. These are tough economic times, and it is especially difficult for municipalities that rely on the federal government. This Andrews Journal article reports that a loan of $400,000 that Andrews applied for from the U.S. Department of Agriculture was removed from the final budget.

Despite the inevitable setbacks, the overall trend line is upward. Residents, the government, the educational and health communities and, increasingly, corporate America realize the importance of rural broadband.

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