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Rural Activists: Treat Broadband as Basic Utility

April 29, 2011

WHITESBURG, Ky. - As some federal agencies charged with expanding broadband access crunch the latest congressional budget numbers to determine where they stand, rural activists are urging national policymakers to help bridge the digital divide between urban and rural households.

Pickering, a filmmaker and community media initiative director at Appalshop in Whitesburg, believes high-speed Internet should be treated as a basic utility, as the country historically has done at the arrival of new technologies.

"Many people are thinking and pushing for an understanding that broadband is in that same place as telephone service was 50, 60 years ago - and that it needs to be accessible and affordable for all Americans, no matter where they live."

Research indicates that close to 70 percent of U.S. urban households have broadband connections, compared with 60 ercent in rural areas.

Kentucky was awarded more than $300 million for broadband expansion projects through federal stimulus dollars. That money, say U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, was never in danger of Congressional cuts.

During the latest rounds of budget wrangling on Capitol Hill, GOP attempts to zero out a particular loan program for rural service providers for the remainder of this fiscal year were ultimately unsuccessful. Agency officials still are determining funding levels for other telecom grant and loan programs that support broadband expansion.

Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, says a new report commissioned by the center illustrates the outcomes for rural communities that are bypassed.

"Educationally, your kids are going to have a harder time doing their work. When it comes to health care, you're not going to have the access to modern telemedicine. And, it's going to be very difficult to bring your goods and services to market."

Pickering and Davis point out that the broadband divide is about more than just who's connected, but how - with rural areas having usually one provider with a price point beyond what many can afford, and with slower download speeds.

The report, "Scholars' Roundtable: The Effects of Expanding Broadband to Rural Areas," is online at ruralstrategies.org. Information on Internet access speed is available at SpeedMatters.org.

Renee Shaw, Public News Service - KY