Stimulus funding brings broadband to rural homes, schools

• In Colorado, mountains and vast stretches between farms and ranches on the plains have made it difficult for companies to justify spending millions of dollars to lay fiber-optic cable to connect far-flung residents.

There, a public-private partnership won $100 million in stimulus money to try to expand high-speed internet access to all Colorado school districts and to libraries and key institutions across the state. Some of the money will go to laying fiber and erecting new microwave towers to deliver broadband into areas that need them.

• In Texas, where 96 percent of households have broadband, $8 million in stimulus money is funding a five-year effort that includes mapping, data collection, and technical assistance in hopes of reaching the 285,550 now-unserved households. Dave Osborn, CEO of Valley Telephone Cooperative Inc., said his company serves an area of roughly 1,700 square miles in south Texas with a population of 30,000. Stimulus money is key, he says.

“It takes a whole lot of money to serve this [population],” Osborn said. “At the end of the day, there’s no way I can spend $14,000 on a line and bill a customer $16 a month. We couldn’t do it without [the federal dollars].”

Obama said the broadband goals far exceed convenience.

“This isn’t just about faster internet or fewer dropped calls,” the president said. “It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age. It’s about a rural community in Iowa or Alabama where farmers and small business owners will be able to sell their products all over the world. It’s about a firefighter who can download the design of a burning building onto a hand-held device; a student who can take classes with a digital textbook; or a patient who can have face-to-face video chats with her doctor.”

In some parts of rural America, the issue isn’t just making broadband available. It’s convincing holdouts that there’s a benefit to it.

A survey released Jan. 13 by the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association—a trade association for rural telecoms—found that the overall broadband subscriber “take rate” for its member companies is only 55 percent, up from 38 percent a year ago.

“It’s kind of one of those ‘If you build it, will they come?’ things,” said CEO Shirley Bloomfield. “It’s one thing when you put in phone service. You may only have five customers at first, but you knew people would sign up. Now, you put out the broadband … and you’re doing a proposition of ‘Do you get enough customers to make it worth your while?’”