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11/7/2006
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Progress Report: Broadband In The Sticks

If you live in a rural area, there's a good chance you don't have access to broadband. What's the problem? And what can you do about it?

As a resident of rural New England, cable Internet service is a very recent addition in my area, and DSL is still not available. So it was a bit of cosmic irony that my broadband service went down right in the middle of finalizing this report on rural broadband. Suddenly, the only connectivity option I had was the dial-up connection I maintain for emergencies.

In that moment, I came face to face with the exact situation that millions of rural Americans deal with daily. The productivity benefits of broadband -- being able to move large amounts of data, music, video, and other forms of information quickly and easily -- are much less available to rural dwellers than they are to those in more populous regions, where the majority of the nation's broadband telecommunications infrastructure is concentrated.


Broadband In The Sticks


•  Where Is My Broadband?

•  The Digital Divide

•  Seeking Satellite Service

•  Future Directions

•  High-Speed Alternatives

•  Look To Local Government

•  Readers Share Rural Broadband Solutions

•  Table: Broadband Options

In a May report on broadband deployment in the United States, the Government Accountability Office reported broadband use at 28% of U.S. households, just below the 30% using dial-up access. Also in May, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released a study titled "Home Broadband Adoption 2006," which estimated a much higher rate of broadband use: 42% of adult Americans have access to high-speed Internet connections, dramatically up from 30% in March 2005.

The Pew study shows that the current rate of growth of broadband adoption is nearly equal among urban, suburban, and rural areas. That rosy statistic, however, is overshadowed by a more significant finding: namely, that rural areas have plenty of catching up to do. As of mid-2006, in terms of overall proportion of users with broadband access, rural areas still lag far behind, with barely 25% having access, as opposed to 44% in urban areas and 46% in suburbia.

The Great Equalizer -- Not
In the information age, broadband is the great equalizer, allowing for entirely new kinds of commerce and entertainment, transforming and streamlining business, and making geographic distance increasingly irrelevant. But ironically, broadband access tends to be least available in the same remote areas that can benefit from most having that big pipe to the outside world.

Anecdotal evidence bears out these numbers. Take the case of InformationWeek reader Joe Bedalov, who lives in a rural area of southeast Wisconsin. He has satellite Internet, for which he paid $900 for setup and equipment, plus $60/month, and his service is unavailable during strong storms. "There are no cable lines where I live and none planned, and AT&T (formerly Ameritech/SBC) says their phone lines are too old to carry high-speed DSL-- I know because I've written to them numerous times to upgrade their phone lines," he says in an e-mail. "I even wrote to the FCC, but the government was no help--they just forwarded my complaint back to SBC, who responded it would cost millions of dollars to upgrade their phone lines."

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