Stimulus funding brings broadband to rural homes, schools

“We sorely need fiber-optic in our community,” said Robert Brinkley, director of technology for the North Country Supervisory Union school district in Vermont.

The 13 schools in his district share a T-1 line whose bandwidth is so small that whenever a video field trip is planned for a class, all the other users on the system have to stop using eMail first.

“The picture doesn’t just get poor, we lose the connection. Whether it’s NASA or the Cleveland Museum of Art, we’ll lose the connection or it’ll drop completely,” said Brinkley.

A U.S. Commerce Department report last year showed that 65.9 percent of urban households subscribed to broadband in 2009, compared with 51 percent of rural households. There are several reasons for the rural shortfall, but lack of availability is the most often cited.

Consumers in rural states have been left behind, either because their homes are too far from one another, mountains make construction expensive, or providers have lacked the capital to justify the investment:

• In Kansas, Rural Telephone Service Co., Inc. got $100 million in stimulus loans and grants to extend broadband into unserved areas.

“Because of the economic climate that we live in—declining population, small farms being bought up by larger operators—the more technology and more access to information that those customers can have, the more likely they are to be able to stay in business,” said Rhonda Goddard, the company’s chief operating officer. “It’s revolutionary out there, for them to have access to the information they need to keep their business running—access to the markets, being able to buy supplies and equipment from the region instead of just from their local market. It opens doors. It increases competitiveness. It props up business.”