The Great Divide: Rural Areas Continue To Face Limited Access To Broadband Services
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Direct fiber to the home is something telcos like to tout as the next big thing, but it's another long-term prospect that won't show up anytime soon outside of urban and suburban areas. High-capacity fiber optic into each home, or to nodes near homes and businesses, is becoming more widely available and offers enormous speeds.
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As of April, the FTTH Council and Telecommunications Industry Association reported 936 communities across 47 states as Optical Fiber Communities, and more than 4 million homes having fiber access. Verizon says it's building out fiber capability to 3 million homes a year, and AT&T predicts 19 million homes wired with its direct fiber project by 2008. But officials for both carriers admit that, for the foreseeable future, this service is likely to be concentrated primarily in areas of higher population. That means this technology actually could increase the divide between rural and urban/suburban areas.
Longer term, broadband over power lines offers the ability to piggyback digital data signals over existing power distribution networks to send high-speed data. While an intriguing concept, technical and regulatory issues make this an option that won't be available widely for at least several years, if ever. Numerous BPL pilots were shut down over the past two years because of radio interference issues and other concerns about technical feasibility and cost-effectiveness. Increasingly, it looks like BPL offers no simple answer for rural broadband access.
Federal government involvement and initiatives in developing and encouraging rural broadband thus far have been limited. Many local governments, however, are exploring developing local broadband access programs or partnering with local carriers to find ways to roll out broadband service to more people. The increasing number of communities taking matters into their own hands indicates just how important an issue this is perceived to be in rural regions.
The AllCoNet project in Allegany County, Md., for example, built a high-speed infrastructure for use by schools, libraries, law enforcement, and other civic services and then leveraged that capital investment by expanding the service for business and residential use, often in partnership with local Internet service providers. This kind of public-private partnership may prove successful in many underserved rural areas, but at the moment only the most forward-thinking localities are creating such initiatives, and access will continue to be limited.
CATCH-UP WITH THE WORLD
A number of factors--including vast geographic areas with sparse populations and a great deal of in-fighting and competition among various incompatible technologies and the companies that champion them--have the United States playing catch-up with a number of other industrialized countries in terms of broadband access, particularly in rural areas.
The United States, according to recent studies, may be falling further behind. That said, U.S. carriers like to point out how far the market has come in the last five years; there's been a great deal of broadband build-out and ever-increasing broadband access in the United States. Availability is still highly variable, and progress in the near term looks incremental, not revolutionary, though new technologies and initiatives appear just over the horizon.
It may take a national initiative by a coalition of visionary federal, state, and local governmental agencies, in partnership with private industry, to bring about a comprehensive solution. In the meantime, rural broadband access will continue to be a landscape marked with deep divides, where the quality and type of service available is largely determined by where you live.
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