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Will Fed Funds Finally Bring Broadband Internet to Rural Areas?

written by: •edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 12/17/2010

Will billions in federal stimulus going to improve broadband access finally get the wide open spaces online? Should net neutrality play a role?

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    With over seven billion dollars of federal funds meant to improve broadband access, everyone has an opinion, usually that their technology is the best for the goals involved, even though those goals aren’t carved out of stone yet. The debate over whether companies that receive funding should be tied to net neutrality regulation only complicates the affair further.

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    Stimulus or Investment?

    The money will be felt most immediately if it is just forked over to existing companies who can use it to speed up whatever they were going to do anyways. But that has to be balanced with what is left when the stimulus is gone. Throwing the money blindly lends credence to the “cyberbridge to nowhere” argument: it might make some jobs for some time, but with little lasting infrastructure or social benefit to the taxpayer afterwards.

    A careful approach is called for if the money is going to get broadband into schools, medical facilities, and unserved homes. It needs to look at making a lot of small investments in projects advanced by local ISPs and governments that understand the needs of residents as clients and constituents. Not only do they have an obvious goal related to broadband in a certain area, but there is expertise beyond technical knowledge involved in rural Internet deployment.

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    Rural Internet Adoption

    An oft-quoted study from Pew Internet reveals that out of the people who don’t have a broadband connection, it’s only because they don’t have access to one 14% of the time. Lowering prices would bring another 18% on board, but almost 70% of people without broadband say they wouldn’t get broadband because they can’t or wouldn’t use it. The stimulus and WiMax can do a lot for the 14%, and probably help the 18%, but the majority of country folk aren’t exactly lining up.

    Network technology is only part of breaching the digital divide. Marketing, customer service, and other parts of a broadband deployment require a different approach. A study out of Michigan State University found that when a rural broadband deployment is coupled with community development efforts, penetration rates are about the same as with urban customers.

    This makes sense: if you don’t use broadband at work or school, and you and no one in your community has it at home, you don’t realize how much you’re missing. And we're not just talking Facebook, another Pew study found that rural broadband users are more likely than urban counterparts to engage in online education. Which again makes sense: where is the nearest community college, let alone one with a wide selection of specialized courses. And I shouldn't be knocking Facebook, even social media, according to the MSU study, helps rural communities, as people are less likely to move away because of isolation.

    A rural deployment takes a different approach than the barrage of junk mail urban dwellers get from large providers. And it's obvious that good things happen when you give people the Internet and show them what it can do. Local ISPs and administrators are in the best place to make sure people actually use the broadband access paid for by the stimulus.

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    The Telco’s go to Washington

    I’m a huge supporter of net neutrality, but it really is a separate kettle of fish that the FCC and legislators should address it as such. Figuring out the best way to spend the money is hard enough without introducing issues that haven’t been resolved on their own for years. Furthermore, if net neutrality legislation is needed (and it is) why tie it to receiving government funding?

    It’s like saying that if you got your dog from a shelter that gets public funding, you have to pick up after it, but not if you got it from a private kennel, because in the latter case you don’t owe society anything. Obviously, allowing companies who can afford it to opt out of laws they don’t agree with isn’t the way to go.

    The question on the table today has to be: What is the best way to spend the money on improving broadband access?