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The Great Divide: Rural Areas Continue To Face Limited Access To Broadband Services

Rural areas have limited access to high-speed broadband services. New technology and government initiatives could change that--though probably not anytime soon.

In the information age, high-speed broadband access to the Internet is supposed to be the great equalizer, allowing for new kinds of commerce and entertainment, transforming and streamlining business, and making distance increasingly irrelevant. Ironically, broadband access tends to be least available in the remote areas that might benefit most from having a big pipe to the outside world.

In May, the Government Accountability Office reported broadband use in 28% of U.S. households, just below the 30% using dial-up. The Pew Internet & American Life Project also released a study in May, which was more bullish: 42% of adult Americans have access to high-speed Internet connections, up from 30% a year ago. The rate of growth of broadband adoption is nearly equal among urban, suburban, and rural areas, Pew found, but that rosy stat is overshadowed by another one: Rural areas lag behind, with barely 25% having broadband access, as opposed to 44% in urban areas and 46% in suburbia.

Some form of broadband is available almost everywhere in the United States. The reality, however, is that it's still a patchwork, with some areas having significantly more limited options than others.

Take Joe Bedalov, who lives in a rural area of southeast Wisconsin. He has satellite Internet, for which he paid $900 for setup and equipment, on top of which he pays $60 a month; 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'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."

Brian Brault describes his situation: "In our relatively rural area, there are many neighborhoods and even entire towns where the only alternative to dial-up is satellite. Some can't even get T1 service from Verizon! We had a wireless broadband provider for a while but they're out of business. Now that our public library offers wireless, people hang out outside with wireless laptops when it's closed because they can't get the access at home. We even have one enterprising community that has set up wireless repeaters to get broadband in from the end of the DSL/cable service area."

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The most common and least expensive forms of broadband are DSL and cable modem services. While speed, service, and cost vary, both generally provide peak speeds between 384 Kbps and 5+ Mbps for downloads and upload speeds of 256 Kbps to 1 Mbps.

Both AT&T and Verizon say DSL service is available to 80% of their subscriber lines (a single house often has multiple lines). However, service availability and speed are limited by the distance between the subscribers and the nearest telco central offices, typically a maximum of 18,000 feet. Similarly, cable modem service is widespread but not ubiquitous. Areas without either service may have to wait a long while, especially if their region offers geographic challenges or sparse population.

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