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Creepy Web access? Look to the sky

If, that is, perhaps, maybe, someday—but—in order to partake of this wondrous electronic cornucopia, you have to live in a metropolitan area of sufficient population density, with the latest gazillion channel fiber optic cabling, super-fast routers, etc., etc., etc. Even in these places, though, you may have to wait weeks for an installer to show up, and service may be less than stellar.

Should you be one of the multitudes of unfortunates living in Smalltown, USA, or somewhere out in the rural areas that make up most of Farm Country, forget about it. You may have the latest, greatest, gigabit Pentium processor computer, capable of zillions of calculations per second, but when you connect to the outside world to send e-mail or surf the Web, you do well to get a wheezing, creaking 56k connection over your phone line. You can go out for a five-course dinner at Burger King in the time it takes for some Web pages to download.

The capabilities of the Internet appear limitless, ranging from now routine e-mails to someday movies-on-demand and real-time videophone conversations with family, friends, and business associates worldwide. Given enough bandwidth, that is Û and at an affordable cost.

Telcom and cable TV companies are spending billions of dollars nationwide to install high bandwidth fiber optic cables that will provide ultra-fast communications, but they're concentrating first on high volume areas. Phone companies have managed to coax higher speeds from existing copper cable systems, but these services, too, have thus far been mostly in cities.

Internet access via cable TV systems is quite fast, but speed can vary according to the number of users, but rural residents are out of luck because it isn't economically feasible to run cable lines in sparsely populated areas. Fast access via phone line, in towns where it's available, also is presently limited to areas within a few miles' radius from the telephone company's central office, again shutting out those in the countryside.

For the millions of rural residents who aren't likely to be offered high speed Internet service via cable or phone line, the answer may lie in satellite systems, a technology many of them already use for receiving television signals. Satellite companies are salivating over the extra bucks they can realize by offering package deals for TV and Internet service. All that's needed for access is a clear view of the sky so signals can travel unimpeded between the 24-inch to 36-inch antenna dish and the orbiting satellite.

Costs vary all over the lot, ranging from a few hundred to several hundred dollars for installation, and $50 to $75 per month for Internet access (discounts are generally available for packages that include TV service). While cost might be a barrier now, it is expected that prices will come down as the market becomes more competitive (and most farmers could write off the Internet access fee as a business expense).

Senator Conrad Burns, R-Mont., chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee, recently introduced legislation aimed at increasing the availability of high speed Internet access in rural America. Among co-sponsors are Senators John Breaux, D-La., and Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.

The bill would relieve small telephone companies from burdensome Federal Communications Commission paperwork requirements that Burns says is "strangling these small companies" and cut through red tape in order to speed deployment of high speed Internet access. The FCC opposes the measure, contending that no changes are necessary.

Burns has introduced other bills to improve Internet access in rural areas, one that would allow airwaves currently set aside only for low power TV stations to be used to provide wireless Internet service, and another that would lift the cap on universal service funding for rural telephone companies, allowing them to improve their systems and offer high speed access.


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