Push from rural leaders needed to accelerate broadband access

The availability of high-speed access varies widely in the Midwestern states. 


Stateline Midwest Vol. 20, No. 3: March 2011

A rural entrepreneur, Iowa Rep. Annette Sweeney experienced first-hand the frustrations and constraints of living in an area without high-speed Internet service.

Operating a business that designed livestock-sale catalogs, Sweeney says she would sometimes have to wait an entire day to upload electronic files with the catalogs on them.

The disadvantage of slow Internet speed was shared by other residents in the small central Iowa town of Alden. But while the need in her community for broadband access was apparent, the path to getting it wasn’t so simple.

“It took a lot of people in our community requesting [it] for it to come,” Sweeney says.

The availability of high-speed access varies widely in the Midwestern states. While there is almost 100 percent household coverage in more than 60 percent of Michigan and Ohio counties, Kansas, South Dakota, Nebraska and North Dakota have that level of coverage in less than 25 percent of their counties. In 11 percent of the counties in Kansas, less than 20 percent of households have access to high-speed Internet.

Recent U.S. Department of Agriculture surveys have shown that while nearly 57 percent of all farms have some form of Internet, only 33 percent have a high-speed connection.

“Entrepreneurs, small businesses and farms cannot grow or thrive without access to the Internet,” Sweeney says.

Areas with communities of 10,000 or more people are much more likely to have high-speed service. It is that last mile of coverage that is hardest and most expensive for companies or municipalities to connect. As a result, securing high-speed Internet — and the economic opportunities for the future that come with it — requires a grass-roots effort.

The small south-central town of Reedsburg, Wis., and its surrounding rural areas are another case in point.

“We had the belief that this was something we had to do for our community; the community itself had to get involved, from the mayors [in the Reedsburg area] on down,” says Dave Mikonowicz, general manager of the Reedsburg Utility Commission.

Reedsburg received more than $5 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to expand its wired network, and local leaders intend to put up small antennas at the end of each branch of the wired network to extend their reach to nearby rural areas.

DeAnne Boegli, public relations manager of TDS Telecom, a company that specializes in expanding Internet services in rural communities, says the role of community leadership is crucial. Her Wisconsin-based company has worked with local leaders in numerous states to find the funding — grants or public and private investment — needed to bring high-speed Internet to small communities.

Role of states, federal government
There is a role for states to play as well. A 2008 report from the National Governors Association highlights some of the strategies employed by states: mapping broadband availability to inform policymakers and service providers, establishing tax incentives to promote private investments, and using public dollars to leverage private funds.

State and local leaders got a major boost in their efforts with the commitment of federal stimulus dollars to expand broadband access. Funds, too, are still available via the 2008 farm bill, which provides loans for infrastructure upgrades in rural communities.

At this year’s Legislative Agriculture Chairs Summit, state lawmakers from across the country learned how they and other rural leaders can help secure high-speed Internet access for their communities.

“First and foremost, a community must conduct a thorough needs assessment,” Craig Settles, the president of Successful.com, an Internet network consulting firm, said at the summit. “This is the only way to determine which technology solutions individuals, businesses and organizations need.”

The next step, he said, is to educate elected officials about the assessment’s findings so that the community can garner the necessary political support. This is particularly important for community-owned networks, co-operatives and public-private partnerships that may face unique legislative or regulatory hurdles.