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Broadband access is still a pipe dream to many rural Americans

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Julie Shields lives a short distance from access to high-speed internet, but with providers reluctant to extend service, the Indiana resident has no other choice but to press on with her slow dial-up connection.

Her situation is often the case throughout many parts of rural America, now pushing hard for solutions because of the economic disadvantages of not having access to broadband.

Constance Cullman, president and CEO of Farm Foundation, said people without connectivity are “simply bystanders” in today’s economy. And so too are many farmers in an industry relying more on broadband and other related technology to increase efficiency, she said.

Cullman said children are also at risk without access to growing trends like online schooling. “Today, access to the internet has gone from being a convenience to being a necessity,” she explained.

Her comments were made during a June 19 workshop in Faribault, Minn., to discuss connectivity needs in the upper Midwest. It was the second in a series of workshops launched by USDA, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Farm Foundation, The Rural Broadband Assoc., National Rural Electric Cooperative Assoc., CoBank and National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corp.

Shields, who lives outside Bloomington, just recently started working her medical billing job from home. She might have to go back to her office, though, after discovering her dial-up connection – especially for images – is often too slow for transmitting data to her employer, Indiana University Health.

She said her son also can’t do his online work for college at home until she’s off the computer, due lack of sufficient user capacity with her dial-up service. “It used to be a luxury.  Now, it’s a necessity,” she said.

Fortunately, her husband doesn’t have much of a need for high-speed internet to operate his cattle farm. He has about 200 head a short drive from their residence, on different pieces of ground without access to broadband.

When he does use the internet, Shields said he waits until she is off the computer or uses his cell phone to access it.

Headway is starting to be made on the problem, which stems primarily from providers not willing to take on the high cost of extending broadband to areas without enough potential customers to produce a return on the investment.

To help offset their cost, the FCC in 2015 set aside $9 billion over six years, Bill Especk of the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Assoc. explained during the June 19 workshop. In Wisconsin, he said $570 million of that was acquired by AT&T, Frontier and CenturyLink to extend high-speed internet to 230,000 locations, or about 8.5 percent of the homes in the state, by the end of 2020.

By the end of last year, he said 40 percent of those locations had been reached. In Minnesota, he said four providers are using $510 million to reach 170,000 locations within six years.

Especk said it is critical for FCC to continue funding after the six-year subsidy program expires, to reach more unserved areas. He also pointed out many rural communities do have sufficient broadband access – the problem lies mostly in the more sparsely-populated areas and places difficult to reach because of topography.

In Indiana, the state is seeing early progress from a new program that encourages rural electric cooperatives to fill coverage gaps, said Jim Pressel, a Republican state representative from the small town of Rolling Prairie, in the northwestern part of the state.

He said rural utilities can now run fiber optics on existing poles and easements without the costly and time-consuming expense of acquiring new easements.

On a much larger scale, the Indiana legislature has also begun looking at federal funding sources to help service providers with the cost. During the 2018 state legislative session, Pressel helped craft a measure to provide state tax breaks to data centers locating to Indiana.

He said data centers bring with them a lot of fiber optics, and what they don’t use could go toward reaching some of the unserved areas. His bill did not make it out of committee, but he plans to reintroduce it during the 2019 legislative session.

“We’re kind of past the days of just needing (high-speed access) for Facebook and needing it to browse the internet as a thing to be doing,” Pressel said.

Right now, Shields said her best option for acquiring high-speed internet rests with the local cable television and telephone companies, whose lines end about a mile from her home. But she said her requests for those lines to be extended keep getting turned down.

Where she lives is not heavily residential, but several homes in recent years have gone up close to her. “They don’t want any part of it,” she said.

Shields said she’s also looked into acquiring high-speed internet from a satellite. So far, the satellite providers she’s talked to indicated that method of service would not compatible with the data-receiving technology her employer needs her to have.

She’s also studying the possibility of acquiring a hotspot to obtain faster internet service through her cell phone. However, her need for broadband is more than what such a device typically using Wi-Fi technology can provide.

“If I could have the fiber optic or the internet through the cable company, I wouldn’t have a problem at all,” she said.