Speed Needed to Bridge Digital Divide

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A digital divide still exists between urban, rural and metro
areas -- and speed is integral to bridging that gap -- according to a U.S.
Department of Agriculture study released Wednesday.

"Broadband access is viewed as necessary to fully utilize
the Internet's potential," the report, titledBroadband Internet's Value for Rural America, concluded. "As the Internet economy has
matured, more applications now require higher data-transmission rates, even in
the case of simple shopping Web sites."

While 55% of U.S.
adults had broadband access in 2007, the study found, only 4% of adults in
rural households could make the same claim. The shortfall "may" be due to the
cost of service or lack of service due to lower returns on sparsely populated
areas, the study said.

Some of the lower-service areas attributed to small or aging
populations, the study found, are clustered in North and South
Dakota, Montana,
Minnesota and Oregon.
But areas with similar population characteristics in Nebraska,
Kansas and Vermont
had higher-than-expected broadband penetration, "suggesting that policy,
economic, and social factors can overcome common barriers," the study said.

The study found that 70% of Internet-connected rural
households had broadband service. By comparison, 84% of urban homes had
broadband connections.  

The report was released the same day that co-author Peter
Stenberg was a panelist at a Federal Communications Commission broadband-adoption
workshop, where he drew on the study to advocate for closing that divide.

The USDA has $2.5 million in economic-stimulus grant and
loan money
to help do just that, along with existing programs under the 2008
Farm Act.

"The USDA study adds more weight to the overwhelming
evidence that broadband is becoming critical infrastructure and driving the
economy throughout America,"
said Derek Turner, research director at media-reform advocacy group Free Press, in
response to the study. "Closing the rural digital divide should be a top
priority for policymakers, who must ensure that economic stimulus funds reach
the rural areas that need them the most.

"We must also finally tackle the long-needed reform of the
Universal Service Fund
," he added. "Policies that will foster a world-class
broadband infrastructure for all Americans are essential to the future of rural

The USF, paid into by commercial providers,
underwrites landline telephone service in locales that are hard to reach or uneconomical
to build out. There is no similar subsidy for broadband deployment.