Serve the Unserved


As the federal government prepares to spend hundreds of millions on several broadband programs as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, those in rural America hope the money actually gets to where it needs to go.

Rarely would the issue matter to most of us in cities and suburbs. Cable says it offers broadband to some 92% of homes in the U.S. And about 63% of adult Americans now have broadband Internet connections at home, compared with 55% in 2008, according to the Pew Research Center.

Just 7% of the U.S. population connects to the Internet via dial-up services, about half the percentage from two years ago, Pew said. When asked what it would take for them to switch to broadband, 17% of those with dialup said it would need to become available in their area.

I've come to appreciate the issue. In central Louisiana, my father is one of those 17%. Against the hiss and roar of a dial-up modem, he tries to keep up with e-mail and photos of grandkids, often cursing a blue streak. “If it's a big photo on e-mail, I can go make a sandwich in the kitchen before it gets downloaded,” he told me the other day. He was serious.

He lives in a rural part of central Louisiana in a red-brick home that is sandwiched between cotton fields and a small bayou. Never mind that only a mile or so away, neighbors enjoy endless channels and high-speed Internet. The local cable company's wire must jump a bayou and a road, and the cost-benefit analysis of wiring such a sparse area has prevented many good people from getting broadband.

If the federal, state and local government are moving more services and information online, as they should, then more people are depending on that lifeline. If people are asked to depend on it, then the government must guarantee that it's available to everyone. And in cases where individual homes in far-flung locales don't have access, then it should be made available in nearby libraries and schools.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service, the two agencies administering the $7.2 billion broadband-stimulus program, have extended the deadline already in part because of the volume. The initial round of funding was mainly for last-mile and middle-mile projects in unserved and underserved areas of the country.

The NTIA is expected to dole out about $1.6 billion in funding for the first round through the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, with the RUS awarding about $2.4 billion through the Broadband Initiatives Program.

The American Cable Association said its members applied for about $1.3 billion in federal broadband stimulus grants, but that more would have applied if some onerous restrictions were removed, such as the federal government's insistence on holding the first lien, and the 10-year prohibition on the sale of federally funded projects. (See page 3.)

Other expensive and complicated initiatives are afoot as part of the stimulus package. The FCC, for example, is charged with delivering a comprehensive national broadband plan that defines what exactly broadband is, who is underserved and plans to insure ubiquitous service — all no later than Feb. 17. A comprehensive broadband map for the U.S. is due in 2011.

Politicians would be wise to remember that folks in the country don't need much. And that while many in the U.S. are waiting for faster broadband speeds, others are just waiting for broadband.