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August 23, 2014
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editorial

A high-speed highway to a good rural future


Electrifying rural America and bringing universal telephone access to its citizens were enormous undertakings in the past century. Now, we who live in rural America face the challenge of building a new telecommunications infrastructure that brings the potential to facilitate economic growth, job creation, and to enhance our way of life in the 21st century. Today, rural Americans including those of us who live in the Upper Delaware River Valley need to join the conversation about how we will get on the high-speed Internet highway via broadband technology or risk being left behind.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) explains the coming challenge to rural communities as new communications technologies, expanding Internet services, online TV and increasing reliance on cell phones (instead of land lines) evolve. “Access to the Internet is an essential infrastructure for any community that cares about economic development, quality of life, and educational opportunities. Unfortunately, most communities are presently dependent on a few unaccountable absentee corporations that act as gatekeepers to the Internet.”(www.ilsr.org/initiatives/broadband/) These big telecommunications corporations care a lot about their many millions of business and residential customers in the cities and suburbs, but frequently give lower priority to less densely populated rural areas, leaving rural communities like ours underserved.

We at The River Reporter believe that without the concerted effort of government leaders, local business associations, school districts, health systems and others working together to bring universal broadband technology to our region, rural residents risk being relegated to some kind of economic dark ages. Very simply, we need to be able to compete with our city and suburban neighbors for jobs and economic development opportunities. Thankfully, the technology already exists that will allow entrepreneurs to live, work and thrive here.

Broadband is high-speed Internet access that is always on, always available. Bandwidth—the width of the band of radio frequencies used, whether broad or narrow—determines the rate at which information can be sent, e.g. whether it takes two seconds or two minutes to download a photo or a document. Broadband, with its wider bandwidth, allows for transmitting much larger amounts of data at higher rates of speed, whether it’s for viewing a movie online in the comfort of your home, for teleconferencing a business meeting, or for taking a college class over the Internet, among many possibilities. [Broadband access is possible through a number of different methods: Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), cable modem, optical fiber, wireless, satellite or Broadband over Powerlines (BPL).]

As the number of Americans who have broadband at home has grown to nearly 200 million (from eight million in 2000), broadband access has become an essential tool for municipalities that want to attract business and thrive. Broadband will be the cornerstone for electronic commerce (e-commerce) in the future, and it offers many possibilities to support and enhance educational opportunities, to deliver telehealth and telemedicine services, to help modernize the electric grid, to support cell phone service, and to access not only government resources (e-government), but also cultural and recreational resources and more.

The federal government’s National Broadband Plan has set a goal of achieving universal broadband accessibility by 2020. (www.broadband.gov/plan/executive-summary/), and the government-backed Connect America Fund, similar to the one that helped bring landline telephone service to unprofitable rural areas in years past, will help subsidize the broadband buildout. But waiting for someone else to make it happen is not an option. Waiting until 2020 is not an option. Counties and municipalities that do not aggressively push for broadband now will end up playing catch-up to those with forward looking plans. Achieving broadband access needs to be moved higher up on our list of local priorities.

Without high-speed Internet connections available to all, we risk being left behind.

[Editor’s note: There is an ongoing effort underway in Wayne County, PA to look at increasing broadband capacity throughout the county and to build a business-class broadband network that also will enhance cellular opportunities. Across the river, Sullivan County, NY is applying for a number of federal grants to stimulate broadband service and is working with large Internet service providers to inquire about grant opportunities. The county also is fighting for what it sees as its fair share of New York State’s contribution to the FCC’s Universal Service Fund (funded via consumer telephone bills) to advance universal telecommunications service. Finally, on Wednesday July 31 at 1 p.m., the USDA Rural Utilities Service and New York State Broadband will hold a joint broadband webinar for stakeholders; registration is required to join the session by going to www2.gotomeeting.com/register/412573378.]