A recent study by the University of Nebraska shows internet and email use in the past five years has jumped from less than 15 percent to 42 percent. While activity may be on the rise, access for many Rural Americans remains a challenge.
The quest for high profit margins has caused many of the nation's largest providers of high speed internet access to by-pass the low population densities of Rural America.
But some rural communities who recognize broadband access as critical to their futures, have built avenues to bring high speed internet home. There is no single strategy to constructing such high-tech infrastructure. Producer Tyler Teske provides this examination of three efforts.
Broadband access can seem like a dichotomy- you either have it, or you don't. But many rural areas have found they are not simply at the mercy of their surroundings. For these communities, access is a matter of finding the right solution for the situation.
In areas with independent local telephone companies the answer has been has been clear. The small geographic regions served by independent telcos helps focus resources and create a unique connection with the community.
Russ Rock, General Manager, Farmers Mutual Telephone Company: "We've been here 100 years now already so we're going to try for the next hundred. The fact that we are here, we are part of the community, it's just natural that we would try to progress with the community."
Russ Rock is general manager of Farmer's Mutual Telephone in Jesup, Iowa. The cooperative provides telephone services, cable television, and internet access via dial-up and high speed digital subscriber line, also known as DSL.
An important part of the service network is an investment in fiber optic cable which makes up a major portion of the Farmer's Mutual Telephone infrastructure. The fiber can carry phone calls, high speed internet access, and cable television into the countryside. And unlike it's copper counterpart, there are no distance limitation issues with fiber optic cable. In the Farmer's Telephone system, fiber runs throughout the service area creating a number of virtual "central office" locations. Signals start closer to the customer and within the limitations of traditional copper cable resulting in an infrastructure that could be utilized to provide the same services to everyone in the exchange.
Russ Rock: "The day of the small farm, the person that was self-sufficient is pretty much gone. So, they've had to change and that's true of anything in a rural area, you have to keep up with what's happening or you're going to get left behind."
Meeting the needs of the customer is not uncommon among independent telcos. Other communities have not always been as fortunate.
Across the state in Manning, Iowa, reliable telephone service able to handle high-speed Internet traffic was unavailable in the mid-90s. The Betterment Foundation, a group who's sole purpose is to sustain and improve the community, was trying to entice the high tech firm E-C-I to relocate its technical support center and hardware fulfillment division to Manning. The only thing standing in the way was the lack of an up-to-date communications infrastructure.
Manning already had municipal gas and power services which generated cash flow for community improvements. After getting overwhelming community support through a local ballot referendum, the Light and Gas utility boards in Manning worked with the area Rural Electrical Cooperative to gather up the necessary $3.2 million to create a telephone company. Manning now provides residents and businesses with-state-of-the-art phone, cable television and high-speed Internet connections by purchasing telecommunications services through a local Midwest-based telecommunications company. As a result, E-C-I relocated the technical support center along with other customer services to Manning, a move that has cut overhead for the company and created jobs with good wages for Manning residents.
Thirty miles away in Carroll, Iowa, is another municipal telephone company. But unlike Manning, Carroll did not have ready cash to invest in telecommunications infrastructure. Instead the community's strategy has been to use the municipal telephone utility as a recruiter to encourage existing telecommunications companies to provide services to the almost 22,000 people living in the city. In the span of four years, broadband availability expanded from no service to what mayor Ed Smith calls a competitive marketplace with multiple providers.
Ed Smith, Mayor Carroll, Iowa: "Basically we're helping drive them to recognize Carroll as a viable market."
The ability to access a high speed Internet connection has been beneficial to the businesses in Carroll. Food supplier Farner-Bocken increasingly relies on an Internet connection to take and process customer orders. And JEO Consulting, an engineering firm with offices across the Midwest, is moving toward a model where files in all of the company's facilities can be shared via the Internet regardless of geographic location.
JEO actively pursued a broadband connection when there were literally no connections in Carroll. When a wireless broadband provider became the first high speed service available in town, branch director George Parris jumped at the opportunity.
George Parris, JEO Consulting: "In my own mind there isn't anything we can't do out of this office that another community or another business would be able to do in a larger metropolitan community. Even a smaller community could be competitive as long as they have the high speed, the bandwidth that you need."
Having broadband service means the massive engineering files produced by JEO can be moved between offices or sent to clients in a matter of minutes instead of a matter of days.
Like JEO, the local hospital relies on a broadband connection for efficiency. While some hospitals are large enough to maintain a full-time radiologist, this is not practical in all locations.
Doctor David Lacey works for Iowa Radiology which provides diagnostic services to a number of central Iowa hospitals, including Carroll.
Dr. David Lacey, Iowa Radiology: "if a patient for instance is in a small ER say in Osceola or Carroll and they need to figure out if they've got bleeding in their head, and they need to know right away, you can ship it up to us and we can look at it within minutes. So it gives the small hospitals in these other towns the same quality of care as you'd get in the larger metropolitan areas."
The networked arrangement is also efficient. Because of the dedicated, high-bandwidth connection, scans can be redistributed to even out the workload. And, if there is a need for a second opinion, the file can be analyzed in a matter of minutes by anyone in the radiology group regardless of location.
While telecommunications alone is unlikely to be the salvation of small towns, its absence is clearly detrimental. Broadband access creates an environment that changes the significance of geographic location. And it affords small communities the opportunity to make themselves more attractive both to residents and businesses.
Ed Smith, Carroll, Iowa: "Having access in our community for that type of service really makes us part of the rest of the country. And we're not a stepchild to anyone in that regard."
For Market to Market, I'm Tyler Teske.