High Speed for the Sparsely Wired
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Government stimulus spending is a contentious issue right now in Washington. But the $7.2 billion in the last stimulus package for extending high-speed Internet access is just beginning to be spent, and the beneficiaries could not be happier.
Cynthia K. Wegener and her husband, owners of a farm and horse-breeding business in western Kansas, will be able to upload a photograph of a horse to show a potential buyer in seconds, not the 20 to 30 minutes they now need with dial-up service. "I just cannot begin to tell you how frustrating it is to do anything with it," she said.
And in remote Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska, with limited Internet access, the program will bring more fundamental changes, expanding the health care options, for example, to allow doctors in Anchorage, 400 miles to the east, to see patients via videoconference.
"This is the first time in my 25 years in health care where technology has a direct impact," David P. Hodges, the chief information officer for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. "It sure gives you a new perspective on what you do for a living."
The types of Internet activities that most Americans take for granted -- watching videos, downloading songs, social networking -- are out of reach for millions of homes across the United States. These people -- many in poor, rural pockets -- either have outmoded dial-up Internet service or have no affordable high-speed service. Sometimes the nearest high-speed connection is at the local library, 10 miles away.
The $7.2 billion plan in the last stimulus package was approved without significant debate. The program is intended to extend broadband service to what is known as the "middle mile," which can connect to institutions like schools and hospitals, and the "last mile" -- homes and businesses -- that big Internet providers have bypassed because the expected revenue was too small to justify the big investments needed.
For some of the beneficiaries, the program will mean the difference between isolation and being connected to the rest of the world. "If you don't have a high-speed Internet connection, it's almost impossible to get anything done anymore," said Martin Cary, vice president for broadband services at GCI Communication Corporation of Alaska, the largest Internet provider in the state.
Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said the extension of Internet service was a significant moment in communications. "Extending broadband in rural America is as important to jobs and growth in the 21st century as extending electricity was in the 20th century," he said.
So far, more than 200 projects have been awarded about $3 billion in grants and loans from the program's administrators -- the Agriculture and the Commerce Departments -- mostly to small carriers. The stimulus law requires that all the money in the program be allocated by Sept. 30. Even so, many remote homes will still not get high-speed access.
For those who will be connected, there are some mixed feelings. While most seem impatient for the greater access and many businesses are eager to attract new customers, some are concerned about the unintended consequences of their new connections.
James W. Rowh, for instance, who owns an organic farm and natural foods store not far from the Wegeners in Norton, Kan., is wary that the Internet will lure his customers away. "You can find pretty deep discounts online," he said. "There are only 3,000 people in this town. When you start losing people to the Internet, it's going to have an effect on your bottom line."
Even the small companies that have been awarded the grants and loans to extend the broadband fiber lines and build the microwave towers are aware that once they do all the work and sign up the customers, the big carriers may move in with lower rates and lure their business away.
"Typically, when we go into a town, competition will come on our heels," said H. Rusty Irvin, the chief executive of StratusWave Communications, a small carrier in Wheeling, W.Va. "The Verizons and Comcasts may target that area for deployment."
The company won a $1.5 million loan and a $1.4 million grant to provide wireless service to three West Virginia counties in rural Appalachia.
Bjorn Jones, a librarian in Salinas, Calif., an hour south of Silicon Valley, said that while the Web offered access to a seemingly limitless array of educational resources, it was also a source of mindless entertainment. "If broadband is contextualized within a library, then you are creating learning opportunities," he said. "Without a plan, it's going to be just kids watching YouTube."
The greater Salinas Valley, whose residents are mainly Hispanic immigrant farm workers, has limited high-speed Internet access mainly because of the expense of laying fiber optic lines. The surrounding mountains and beach make extending lines especially challenging for neighboring Santa Cruz County. Officials said they realized the need for additional fiber lines in April 2009 when the entire county, including its emergency services, lost the Internet for 21 hours after vandals cut cables miles away.
The joint application with Santa Cruz County, Monterey County and San Benito County to extend access was rejected by the Commerce Department in the first round and officials are awaiting word on the second round. (The rejection was not all that unusual; the department received 1,885 applications in the first round and awarded only 82 grants.)
While the stimulus program will reach hundreds of rural areas in all 50 states, there are people like R. Mark Fair, who lives in Leicester, N.C., in the mountains northwest of Asheville, who will not be helped. Mr. Fair and his neighbors have been trying unsuccessfully since 2006 to persuade AT&T to replace their dial-up service.
"I go online every day for e-mail," said Mr. Fair, an electrical engineer. "I can generally get around those O.K., but when it comes to online meetings and file transfers, it's really frustrating."
In Elon, N.C., Chad Sowers said he had exhausted his options for a reliable and fast connection, even offering to pay $2,000 toward that goal. He works in information technology, and he and his wife, a registered nurse, both need high-speed Internet for continuing education, he said. They also want their children, 9 and 12, to have access for their schoolwork. "Broadband is no longer a luxury," Mr. Sowers said.
In a statement, Clifton Metcalf Jr., an AT&T spokesman, said, "We've taken efforts to still deliver the benefits of broadband to these customer locations, such as through our satellite-based broadband service, which reaches the vast majority of rural markets in our 22 states."
Since many of the new broadband recipients live in isolated, rural areas or are poor, the F.C.C. is proposing that money from its Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes telephone services for high-cost areas, low-income consumers, schools, libraries and rural health care providers, be expanded to broadband services. The fund receives its money from a monthly fee of about $2.78 a household -- the fee is part of the telephone bill -- and is expected to disburse $8.7 billion this year.
"The biggest challenge is converting a fund that's been focused for a very long time on telephones to one focused on broadband communications as quickly and as efficiently as possible to make sure we can extend broadband to rural America," Mr. Genachowski of the F.C.C. said.
Alaska is the largest recipient of rural health care Universal Service Fund subsidies, and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation is the largest recipient in the state, with $1.5 million in 2008.
Mr. Hodges, of the health corporation, said many of the 48 villages it served did not have running water or roads between villages because they were on unstable tundra. "We can't put in telephone lines," he said, "and there are environmental issues because you don't want to damage the tundra."
Mr. Hodges said his network of telepsychiatry through microwave and satellite would expand with the federal funds. The health corporation, which has a dearth of health professionals, offers behavior health services from psychiatrists in Minnesota, Seattle and Anchorage, he said.
"We're now able to increase the amount of time we spend with a patient," he said. "We're not limited by the lack of daylight in the winter and when planes because of weather can come in. We've taken those barriers out of the equation."
As for Mrs. Wegener, the horse breeder, she said she believed she was losing money by having to drive her horses to auctions as far away as North Dakota and Nebraska to be seen by potential buyers. The Internet could change that, she said. "We would love to sell them off the farm and not haul them anywhere."
First Published July 10, 2010 2:00 am