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App-Rising.com covers the development and adoption of broadband applications, the deployment of and need for broadband networks, and the demands placed on policy to adapt to the revolutionary opportunities made possible by the Internet.

App-Rising.com is written by Geoff Daily, a DC-based technology journalist, broadband activist, marketing consultant, and Internet entrepreneur.

App-Rising.com is supported in part by AT&T;, however all views and opinions expressed herein are solely my own.

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March 20, 2008 4:23 PM

Closing the Rural Broadband Gap, Presented by the Internet Innovation Alliance

I had the good fortune to attend an event on Capitol Hill yesterday hosted by the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA) entitled "Closing the Broadband Gap in Rural and Underserved America."

It was a first-rate panel anchored by IIA's own Bruce Mehlman and Larry Irving, and featuring Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation; Emily Parker, program officer of the US Libraries program for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Dr. Mark McElroy of Connected Nation, COO and SVP of communications for Connected Nation; and Alec Ross of One Economy, EVP of external affairs for One Economy.

I'll summarize my impression of their comments in reverse order from how they spoke.

I'm doing this to emphasize how strongly I agreed with Ross's comments related to the importance of spurring broadband adoption as much, if not more than, its deployment. He even went so far as to say that before we spend a dollar on increasing supply, we should first consider spending it on demand.

This argument is one of the very underpinnings of what App-Rising.com and to a large part my professional career is all about.

Increasing supply of anything without increased demand is most often pointless. And the best way to get more supply of anything is to increase demand for it.

Which leads to McElroy, who hit some of the highlights of Connected Nation's model and underlying philosophy. They build maps to find areas that don't have broadband, which spurs investment. And they establish teams of local leaders to generate plans to get communities using the Internet to a greater degree.

While their model has come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks, I'm still a supporter of any and all efforts to upgrade our understanding of what broadband is out there and, especially, to engage communities in a dialog about how to better use broadband.

Parker shared an overview of how the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invested $350 million to help get computers and connectivity to libraries across the country. She emphasized the importance of libraries as community technology centers, but lamented that not all communities have been reinvesting in keeping their technological capacity current.

The Foundation is currently in the midst of determining the next set of goals for schools that it will try and help achieve, one of which is high speed Internet access, defined by them as 1.5Mbps.

Kicking off the panel was Atkinson, who framed some of the challenges of deploying broadband given America's low population density but contrasting that against a place like Sweden where despite a largely rural populace only 400 homes in the whole country do not have broadband access. The reason? Because they've invested $11 billion over the last few years to upgrade their infrastructure. For the US, he suggested an aggressive policy of offering tax credits for the deployment of broadband.

Atkinson was also the first to strike a contrarian note when the panel moved into an open discussion as while most of the panel cited the need for and benefits of competition he called its efficacy into question in rural areas, in particular as it relates to giving new entrants additional incentives just for the sake of spurring competition.

I've long wondered how competition is the answer to increasing capacity and availability in rural areas; if we're having trouble getting one company to invest how can we expect to get two, especially when the more competitors the smaller the slice of customers each one gets.

I managed to sneak in a question at the end trying to ask about the gap between how so many people say it's too expensive to get big broadband to rural areas yet rural areas are likely the ones that could most benefit from that connectivity. Unfortunately I included in that question my belief that the ultimate goal should be a fiber pipe to every home.

This led the answers to focus on questioning if that truly is the goal. After a brief discussion a consensus emerged on the panel that rural broadband deployment should focus more on getting current broadband technology to everyone than next-gen technology to anyone.

I completely agree that the first order of business in considering the rural broadband challenge is making sure that everyone in America has access of at least 750Kbps or higher.

But at the same time why aren't we setting a longer term goal that's much more aggressive?

One argument put forth was that if you start talking about getting too much bandwidth into rural areas the cost becomes too great and can scare off all deployment, be it public or private because it requires too much of an investment.

I understand that as well, but I still don't see why we can't set a long-term goal of a fiber pipe to every home, no matter where it is.

In the meantime, this panel did a great job of laying out some of the most important things we can be doing to spur deployment to rural areas today:

- Robust mapping so private providers can know where the gaps are and move to fill them in

- Local community teams and technology centers that can spur the adoption and use of the Internet that will grow the demand that can drive deployment

- Tax credits and other incentives for the companies willing to deploy to rural areas to help make the business case more attractive

The only thing missing from this discussion was an advocate for municipal broadband. I have to admit I still have some reservations about public entities competing with private enterprise for consumer dollars, but I can't deny the reality that in many rural areas some form of municipally owned, financed, and/or operated deployment might be the only way those communities can expect to have their infrastructure upgraded in the next twenty years.

And for those communities who have seen the light and understand how important it is to be as wired as possible in the 21st century, I see no reason why they shouldn't be allowed to forge their own digital future if incumbent providers are unwilling or unable to deliver the network a community says it needs.


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Comments (2)

In North Carolina, half our population resides in our rural areas - that includes doctors, lawyers, dentists and folks who simply like to raise horses, food or to be surrounded by big acreage. So why do they deserve less BBND? Because the incumbents say they aren't worth investing in? I don't accept this. Access to BIG BROADBAND is an economic development imperative in rural North Carolina. Between 2001 and 2006, employment in our two top manufacturing sectors, textiles and furniture-making, fell by 90,000 jobs-- our rural areas were hit hardest. Conversion to New Economy jobs is only happening in our urban counties. BIG Broadband is how our rural communities can leapfrog over this abyss and open our rural workforce to the world. You are correct to question the "lack of density" excuse given by the incumbents. In NC, small independent telcos and coops, who live, work and hire only in North Carolina are building out their rural service areas often to 100% and they are now deploying fiber. But the big incumbents, who are based outside our state, relegate our rural areas to low-cost and low-technology solutions while charging exhobitant prices ($60) for (if you are lucky) 1 MB. If density is not the reason, than are our rural areas serving as profit centers from which the incumbents can fund more advanced technologies in high-income areas outside our state? There is a pure economic development need for State Governments to get involved and provide funds to offset the cost of fiber for any company willing to fiber-up our rural areas. If they do this- watch those supposedly unattractive areas grow! (Fat Broadband, pastural landscape, AND clean air!) Why should rural areas be relegated to third-world status, when economically, these are the areas we need to be investing in? I love it when folks say this - they'd never be willing to live in a place with only 768K. Nor will any business dependent on the New World Knowledge Economy.

Posted by Anney Rural on March 22, 2008 4:58 PM

As a small businessman who pays for Satellite Broadband (80$/mo) in a rural area, I have thought a lot about this topic. You make a good point that not everyone out here sees a need for high-speed (or any) Internet Access. OTOH the not-so-local phone company put fiber down my highway 6 years ago and they still will not hook me up to it because not enough of my neighbors have requested it. With DSL 200 feet away I have to believe the phone companies are stalling to have net nuetrality removed before they move. Tax incentives with restrictions on licensing for companies that bogart that fiber may be the answer. We got rural electrification, how about a fair shot at connectivity?

Posted by Joseph Barreca on March 24, 2008 7:14 PM

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