While Internet broadband has become a necessity for both businesses and consumers alike, for thousands of rural communities throughout the US, it’s either nonexistent or available at unaffordable rates. Government stimulus funding is helping…but not enough.
The popular media tag for the gap in broadband availability, generally between rural America and its cities, is “the digital divide.” While this divide may not be widening, it is deepening due to the proliferation of web applications in “life line” areas, such as online education, banking and investing, employment search and job application placement, phone communications via VoIP, e-commerce, and health care, all of which have transformed Internet broadband into a social necessity. And every day that goes by, rural communities are feeling the void.
The problem creating the digital divide of today is the same as ten years ago: low population density makes it economically difficult for service providers to justify building broadband networks into rural areas; the supply/demand equation is simply out of whack. And with capital being tight, the risks are too great, even with a long term optimistic model.
In response to these factors, a compelling argument can be made for federal subsidization of rural broadband, with the same economic basis as the on-going federal subsidy of rural phone lines. However, Ray Baum of the Oregon Public Utilities Commission recently suggested that such a subsidy will not likely happen any time soon. At the 2010 Oregon Connections Telecommunications Conference held on October 21 and 22, he reminded attendees that all government subsidies are being scrutinized and a phone-line-like subsidy for broadband would be unlikely. Later in the conference, Thomas Brown of the FCC mentioned that a recommendation has recently been made to transition universal service funds to support rural broadband, but nothing was mentioned in terms of its probability or timing.
At the same conference, a panel of telecom leaders seemed to agree that the digital divide is a “social problem” and must be addressed as such. In other words, the federal government alone will not provide the solution. The key lies largely in rural community leadership. Someone needs to take ownership and accountability within each rural community and make broadband a goal with high priority. Collaboration with telecom carriers, economic development groups, local “anchor tenants” and town residents will help to create a win/win model that mitigates the risk in broadband network investment. The panel also warned that the worst thing a rural municipality could do is place its own interests before its residents in an attempt to profit from a broadband network with the objective of a “trickle-down” effect – a model which has failed among several small and large municipalities around the country.