State Broadband Initiatives Accelerate to Bridge Digital Divide

States have recently accelerated efforts to boost Internet connection speeds and expand access to unserved regions of the country.
by | March 30, 2012
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For years, most residents of rural Ralls County, Missouri, surfed the Web on dial-up or slow wireless connections. Cut off from high-speed broadband available elsewhere, streaming video and downloading large files were off limits.

That’s about to change, as a local cooperative is installing direct fiber connections to homes throughout the county. Residents with the new service now enjoy speeds of 10 to 20 megabits per second – faster than some homes in big cities.

“It’s just night and day from what they’re used to seeing,” said Lynn Hodges, economic development manager for Ralls County Electric Cooperative. “They’re just blown away by the speeds.”

High-speed Internet plays a key role as regions compete to attract employers and encourage participation in today’s global economy. Many states stepped up efforts in the past year and set ambitious goals to wire more areas -- particularly in rural localities -- so they don’t fall behind. Communities like Ralls County are now finally plugging in, bridging the digital divide that exists throughout much of the country.

Still, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates 18 million Americans reside in areas lacking broadband access, putting entire populations at an economic disadvantage.

Deploying broadband in rural areas presents a challenge for providers, often with a hefty price tag. Hodges said crews have encountered 2,000-foot drops when installing fiber. Other times, homes in farming communities span miles apart.

Federal Recovery Act grants fund much of the newer broadband infrastructure upgrades, with more than $7 billion underwriting nearly 300 projects. States are pitching in, partnering with providers to widen broadband availability.

Hodges estimates Ralls County Electric Cooperative spends an average of $3,000 to $4,000 per home to install a fiber connection. Without $19 million in federal grants and loans, the cooperative could never afford the upgrades, he said.

Missouri’s Broadband Expansion

To expand broadband access throughout the state, Missouri established public-private partnerships with Ralls County Electric Cooperative and other telecoms serving rural areas.

Gov. Jay Nixon announced the initiative in 2009, pledging to deliver broadband to 95 percent of residents by the end of 2014. In all, $311 million in stimulus grants, state money and private investment will fund various projects.

As part of the initiative, representatives from governments, schools, public safety and other areas have formed regional commissions to develop plans for each community. Damon Porter, director of the MoBroadbandNow initiative, said more than 100 broadband providers are participating statewide.

“These teams are coming together and really, for the first time, talking about broadband and how it can have a positive impact on the community,” he said.

Increased Web speeds open many doors for communities. Doctors interact remotely with patients. Students download audiobooks in seconds. Farmers sell goods in real time.

Porter said he expects most of Missouri’s broadband projects to be complete by 2013.

State Initiatives

A slew of other states are pursing similar initiatives – linking Internet providers to community leaders.

Eight governors referenced broadband or fiber networks in recent State of the State addresses.

In February, Ohio Gov. John Kasich announced plans to spend $8.1 million revamping the state’s existing 1,850-mile fiber optic network, OARnet. The plan calls for a ten-fold increase in download speeds, expanding the network’s capacity to 100 Gbps.

John Conley, Chief Technology Officer for the Ohio Board of Regents, said companies can also tap into the state’s central network hub to test products.

Much of Ohio’s network centers around college campuses. Conley points out Facebook, Google and numerous other Internet startups launched around universities.

The same day Kasich unveiled the plan, a similar project was announced in California. The Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California, Pacific Northwest Gigapop, and Internet2 consortium will share connections on a 100 Gbps-network, extending from Los Angeles to Seattle. The network, partially funded by a federal grant, is expected to be up and running this summer.

Earlier this year, Indiana announced plans to boost its own high-speed network linking Indiana University (IU) and Purdue University to a national research network in Chicago.

IU was well aware of planned network upgrades in other states. David Jent, IU’s associate vice president for networks, said top university administrators view the network and its 100-gigabit speeds as essential to remaining competitive in securing grants and attracting students.

“We think that providing the right amount of capacity ahead of the need is important,” he said. “If you wait to react, you’ll be behind.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also proposed allocating $25 million in March to extend broadband access to the Adirondacks and other remote areas of the state. The plan calls for lawmakers to shift money from an economic development fund and approve partnerships with telecoms.

All states report data twice annually to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which compiles information for the National Broadband Map.

States’ interest in broadband isn’t likely to slow anytime soon.

“They’ve all been able to realize the economic value and return on investment,” said James Ward, a committee director for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In some cases, Internet providers have taken the lead role in building new networks.

Google has begun laying the foundation for a state-of-the-art fiber network crisscrossing Kansas City, Mo. and Kansas City, Kan. When complete, residents are expected to enjoy speeds 100 times faster than typical broadband connections.

America’s Slow Speeds

Even with all the recent activity, the United States lags far behind other countries.

U.S. speeds ranked 25th fastest in the world in a Pando Networks study, based on 27 million downloads from January through June 2011. South Korea tops the list, with speeds far exceeding most developed nations.

Similar tests, compiled by broadband company Ookla and Speedtest.net, currently show the U.S. ranks 33rd, with average speeds less than half that of Lithuania, South Korea and Latvia.

The FCC reported in May that broadband was not being deployed in a “reasonable and timely” manner in its annual broadband progress report.

Part of the finding was swayed by the FCC’s evolving definition of what constitutes broadband service. The current standard, last revised in 2010, denotes broadband as connections enabling 4 megabits per second downloads and 1 megabit per second uploads. Internet providers, though, typically offer much faster speeds to most of their customers.

To accelerate deployment, the FCC announced plans in November reforming subsidy programs and establishing the new Connect America Fund, capped at $4.5 billion per year. The reforms include updated requirements for participating telecoms that promote both broadband and phone service in areas with limited or no availability.

But not everyone is satisfied with the new rules.

Former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan criticized the FCC order in an editorial in Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, writing the plan does not guarantee high-speed connections for all rural Americans. With telecoms not required to support and expand networks in rural areas, investment and new construction projects could dry up, Dorgan wrote.

 The Poverty Divide

The rural-urban divide isn’t the only factor determining broadband access. Multiple studies have also correlated speeds and availability with income levels.

A 2011 Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies report examined broadband availability in South Carolina, Los Angeles and Chicago. Researchers found residents living in high poverty areas were served with fewer Internet providers.

Residents of poor communities are typically limited to one or two providers, said Nicol Turner-Lee, vice president and director of Media and Technology Institute for the center. The study didn’t assess cost. But it’s not unrealistic to assume less competition results in higher prices and slower speeds.

“If you don’t have a lot of competition, the likelihood of getting a FiOS connection is slim,” said Turner-Lee, who co-authored the study.

For some low income residents living in wired communities, broadband isn’t affordable. Provider fees, which vary for different areas, often deter low income families from plugging in.

The U.S. Commerce Department reports income and education are “strongly associated” with broadband adoption. Residents in nearly seven out of 10 U.S. households connected to the Internet in 2009, according to the most recent Census Bureau survey estimates.

Without Internet access, Turner-Lee said it’s more difficult for poorer families to break the cycle of poverty.

“We have to find ways to ensure that nobody is left behind because of availability and affordability,” she said.

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