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Broadband service for rural areas: The promise still exceeds reality


“It’s like having a race car sittin’ up on blocks,” a resident of rural Kentucky said of his dial-up Internet connection. And while the USDA and your tax dollars have spent billions of dollars, and committed even more, with the goal of bringing affordable broadband access to rural America, the reality — like universal healthcare — is still aborning.

According to a Rural Business white paper by Carl Johan-Torarp and Mark Coronna, the USDA, through its Rural Utilities Service, had spent $3.4 billion through April 2013, funding 297 rural broadband network projects, which had reached a grand total of 99,424 consumers and 6,358 businesses, or $32,075 for each of the 106,000 recipients.

Granted, there are infrastructure requirements in sparsely populated rural areas that lack the economies of scale of cities, but that’s still a nice chunk of change, even if the per subscriber cost is only half that much when spread across the entirety of rural America.

Provisions in the Senate version of new farm bill would increase appropriations for rural broadband, while the House version would maintain the $25 billion yearly status quo. Who knows what amount will make into the final version of the legislation?

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration reports broadband service varies widely in rural America, including small cities, particularly for higher speeds (25 Mbps and above).

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In many rural areas, it’s either woefully slow dial-up or satellite, which is generally expensive, slower, and less feature-laden than fiber optic-based service in cities. Even in fair-size cities, Internet service often comes down two monopolistic sources, the telephone company and the cable company — both of which tend to provide as little speed as possible for as much money as possible.

A recent second quarter 2013 State of the Internet survey by Akamai showed the U.S. ranking eighth in the world in average connection speed. The fastest average connection speed, no surprise, was in the District of Columbia, followed by Massachusetts, Virginia, Delaware, New Hampshire, and Maryland.

READ MORE: Government broadband projects for rural communities

Search engine goliath Google set the bar high when it installed gigabit service in Kansas City. Chattanooga has one of the most technologically advanced broadband systems in the U.S., and Seattle and other cities have seen the business advantage of super-fast broadband. There are glimmers of hope on the horizon, even for areas of rural states, as private entities, rural cooperatives, and others compete for the prestige factor — and growth — that come with providing super-fast gigabit service.

Even in basically rural Mississippi, CSpire, a privately-owned cell phone provider, had cities in its service area beating down its doors to compete to be the first to have gigabit service. Nine cities have been selected for rollout of the service.

So, there is hope for improvement…sometime.

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