Information superhighway still bypassing many rural Americans

For a country that pioneered the revolution in technology, the U.S. continues to be an also-ran in broadband Internet access and in the price users pay for broadband.

And despite assurances that affordable broadband access for rural communities continues to have “high priority” through the USDA, the programs have been mired in paperwork and bureaucracy, with millions of dollars being spent on systems not in rural areas, duplicating already existing services in major urban areas.

A recently-released study by the Organization for Economic Development (OECD) shows 2006 ended with the U.S. ranking 25th in broadband penetration worldwide and that it dropped from 13th to 15th in OECD countries. Citizens in the world’s leading broadband countries also pay far less — below $1 per Mbps (megabits per second) of service. In the U.S., rates average almost 10 times that.

“Access to high speed broadband is critical for economic development, community growth, and individual advancement,” Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., said at a House agriculture subcommittee hearing to review rural broadband programs operated by the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service.

“For many rural Americans, affordability and accessibility to high speed broadband are out of reach. As we work on the next farm bill, it’s important that we open up the information superhighway to all.”

Deployment of high speed Internet service is “one of the most important factors for the economic development and future success of our rural communities,” and “has the potential to slow and possibly reverse the population exodus from our rural areas,” said Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo.

Yet, testimony from industry leaders painted a picture of failure to come anywhere near the 10-year goal set forth in the 1996 Telecommunications Act of achieving 45 Mbps in 86 million households by the end of 2006.

The 2002 farm bill provided funding for rural broadband programs to improve access through the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service. But while access in urban regions has mushroomed, with connections via cable, DSL, or area Wi-Fi systems, a major complaint has been that too little has been done in rural areas, and that there is too little information at both national and state levels on the progress of these technologies.

“There is embarrassingly poor data on the adoption, diffusion, deployment, and utilization of these advanced technologies throughout rural America, and broadband adoption rates and utilization patterns are poorly assessed,” Jack Geller, president of Minnesota’s Center of Rural Policy and Development, told the House subcommittee.

“It has become clear,” he said, “that without the advanced telecommunications tools and resources to adequately compete in the national and global marketplaces, businesses and industries throughout rural America will continue to be at a serious disadvantage.”

Tom Simmons, senior vice president of public policy for Midcontinent Communications, said further that RUS loans “are largely being used to subsidize broadband in areas already served by companies that have deployed broadband services without a government subsidy, using private risk capital.” And he noted, “Because the process lacks transparency, taxpayer funds are being misspent on projects that are not extending broadband service to rural communities.”

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