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The Internet as Connection & Entertainment

There is a digital divide between rural and urban America. Farmers and rural residents have clamored for access since the Internet came to the public's attention in the late 80s and 90s. The technological adoption curves for computers and the Internet were close for urban and rural residents through the 90s, but a closer look shows that rural areas began to fall behind in the 2000s. Farms close to town were wired. Those farther away had more trouble. As a result, in 2008 there were nearly 20 million rural people who were not served by a single broadband Internet provider. They couldn't get service no matter how much they might be willing to pay.

  Map of Farms with High Speed Internet Access  

Yet, broadband access to the Internet has become a crucial part of lifestyles in rural America. [In another story, we'll deal with how the Internet is crucial in rural economic development.]

One of the central facts of rural life is that you live out in the country, isolated from your neighbors and from the electronic hubs that connect communities to the world. The promise of the Internet is that it can erase geographic and cultural limitations – IF the high-speed wires or other forms of access are installed. That costs money.

Broadband access to the Internet matters because of the explosion of multimedia information that is now being deployed by Web site publishers. Interactive features, graphics and streaming or downloaded video now provide much of the content on the Web, and dialup phone connections are too slow to display that information.

With high-speed or broadband connections, rural doctors can consult with specialists and send X-rays or other diagnostic images back and forth. Students in rural schools can take classes from distant education centers, and an unemployed rural housewife can get her degree without having to travel to the city. Both the farmer and his kids can search for and order products or services. The Internet has largely replaced the printed Sears Catalog that was so important to rural folks at the turn of the 20th century. Farmers can attract global customers or develop niche products for their food and fiber.

Without broadband access, many rural students like Julia Foushee of Person County, NC, has to wait 10 minutes just to get her e-mail to boot up and doesn't even attempt to download video or audio information for her homework. Several nights a week, she will drive to her mother's office in town to find broadband connectivity. Her dad, Jay, is a member of the volunteer Emergency Medical Service (EMS) and talks about being delayed in getting help to a farmer with chest pains because they couldn't get a phone call through to the farmer's wife – she was online on a dialup connection.

Hank Kobza InterviewDon Lee InterviewHank Kobza (left) is an auctioneer in David City, NE, and he's seen first hand the impact that the Internet has had on the study habits of rural students. "You take a box of encyclopedias," he says, "you can't sell them. Nobody wants them because you can go to the Internet and be specific and bring out exactly what you want to bring out and study it on the Internet."

UNL Professor Don Lee (right) has seen the Internet evolve from a plaything for geeks to an essential tool for education. "My first impression of the Internet was that it would only be something for the real computer geeks to work with," he says. Now, "I've got segments of my course, sections of my course that I teach entirely online, and I can add my voice to little Power Point lectures, and my online students watch me over the Internet."

Farmers have always tried to break through the isolation, first through letters from home, statewide newspapers, and national magazines, then through radio and television. But those are passive media experiences – the information comes to you and you have to sift through it for the nuggets of news that you need. The Internet makes that sifting process active. Each user can demand only the information that's relevant to him or her. Rural residents often are looking for unusual information and they may have to go halfway across the country or around the world to find it. Without broadband that information retrieval is so slow it's almost useless.

The demand for high-speed, broadband connection to the Internet is there.

However, a 2006 GAO (Government Accountability Office) study found that telecommunications companies have resisted going into rural areas with few people and tough terrains. Many rural residents are desperate. So entrepreneurs have gone to amazing lengths to provide broadband connectivity.

In central Nebraska, for instance, a company called STE Wireless installed microwave receiver dishes on local grain elevators and then put up transmitter antennas on their customers' barns to get them connected.

The federal government and some states are trying to encourage broadband lines in rural America. From 2003 to 2008, the Bush administration made $6.3 billion in loans and grants for rural broadband projects. When the Obama administration came in, they appropriated $4.7 billion for rural broadband as part of the stimulus package.

But critics maintain that much more needs to be done to bring rural America into the broadband 21st century.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2009. A partial bibliography of sources is here.


 

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