Saturday, September 20, 2008

Bringing Broadband to Rural America

Bringing Broadband to Rural America

Sandra Thornton is eager to generate new business for the sewing plant she manages just outside Centerville, Tenn. When the machines at Southeastern Pant are running full tilt, the plant's 55 employees can crank out 2,000 pairs a week for police officers, firefighters, and security guards all over the U.S. Nestled among the rolling, ranch-dotted hills of the central part of the Volunteer State, Thornton's plant has managed to stay open when many clothing companies are sending work overseas, by focusing on custom orders. "All the police agencies want their own stripes, their own pocket sizes," she says. "Our equipment is very easy to change over."

There's just one problem. Southeastern's efforts to court new clients and handle other tasks are impeded by a slow Internet connection. Bidding on contracts, including a lucrative deal to supply pants to the U.S. Postal Service, is carried out via e-mail, and the only Web connection in the office is Thornton's dial-up AOL (TWX) account. Using it to check e-mail or do a Google (GOOG) search—say, for the best price on supplies—takes much longer than with other connections, such as a digital subscriber line (DSL). "If I could just get DSL, I could get so much more done," Thornton says. "It's really frustrating."

Thornton could opt for a corporate-grade fiber-optic connection, but the price tag of as much as $1,000 a month for a so-called T1 line would slash Southeastern's already razor-thin margins. And the next-best alternatives, DSL or a cable modem hookup, aren't available in this rural area 60 miles southwest of Nashville.

Rural Areas Shortchanged

Behold America's broadband backwater. For the nation that pioneered the Internet, extending fast connections to small towns and rural areas has proved a daunting challenge. Carriers are loath to build networks where they can't sell service at a profit, and since 2003 more than $1.2 billion in federal loans aimed at helping private carriers serve remote areas has addressed only the most extreme cases. According to a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, released in July, only 38% of rural American households have access to high-speed Internet connections. That's an improvement from 15% in 2005, but it pales in comparison with 57% and 60% for city and suburb dwellers, respectively.

The lack of fast Web access is helping create a country of broadband haves and have-nots—a division that not only makes it harder for businesses to get work done, but also impedes workers' efforts to find jobs, puts students at a disadvantage, and generally leaves a wide swath of the country less connected to the growing storehouse of information on the Web—from health sites to news magazines to up-to-date information on Presidential candidates. "Broadband is a distance killer, which can especially help rural Americans," says John Horrigan, a Pew researcher. "Broadband is not just an information source for news and civic matters, but it's also a pathway to participation."

In places like Hickman County, where Centerville is located, a broadband blackout can also hobble economic development. The county was a blue-jean manufacturing hub for Levi Strauss until the plant closed in 1998. The Levi's building now sits almost completely idle, and the county has struggled to lure new employers, says Daryl Phillips, executive director of the Hickman County Economic & Community Development Assn. "Larger companies can pay for a T1 line," he says. "The small companies who look for a place like Hickman County need something they can afford."

Spreading the Broadband Gospel

It's hard to blame carriers for dragging their feet on installing the cables and other gear needed to serve less populated areas. Broadband is readily available in Centerville, the birthplace of comedienne Minnie Pearl, with its population of 3,700. It's the outskirts, where population density is one-third the statewide average, that causes Phillips concern. Comcast (CMCSA) is constantly looking for where to expand, and looks for areas that have at least 25 homes per one-mile stretch, says company spokeswoman Teri Weldon. "We are in business to make a profit," she says.

A host of government bodies, companies, and nonprofit organizations have made it their business to encourage wider broadband availability. Among them is Connected Nation, a Washington (D.C.)-based group that aims to spread the broadband gospel in small towns while convincing companies like Comcast and AT&T (T) of the benefits of rural investment. "We document demand so we can help that community make a case to a provider to extend service," says Bryan Mefford, the 35-year-old Kentucky native who runs Connected Nation.

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