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Rural Broadband Access: There’s an “APPalachian” for That!

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October 14, 2011

WHITESBURG, Ky. - In rural areas, consumers sum up their broadband service needs in three words: access, affordability and choice. Rural advocates from five states gathered in Whitesburg this week for the Center for Rural Strategies' first Rural Broadband Summit and hearing. They discussed ways to get more under-served communities logged onto high-speed Internet at a cost they can afford.

Tim Marema, the center's vice president, says participants want to send a message to Washington, D.C., that help is needed.

"When there's a low customer base, when people are spread out, when the competition is much less than in urban areas, the market doesn't behave the same way. So, there's a role for government and the community in making sure we're all connected through broadband."

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering reforms to the Universal Service Fund (USF), a tax on phone bills that helps keep phone rates affordable in high-cost areas, to also do the same for rural broadband access.

Jonathan Adelstein, director of the USDA Rural Utilities Service and a former FCC commissioner, says opportunities in education, business, and healthcare will shrink in areas that lack high-speed Internet access. But he is optimistic that the FCC will ensure consumer protections rather than caving to industry demands.

"There needs to be a new fund to close mobile wireless service gaps, and consumers can gain benefits from that. And by ending the uncertainty of USF reform, the FCC, I think, will send a green light to new broadband investment."

Adelstein contends the investments in rural areas are not only necessary for those regions, but the nation as a whole.

"And for any connected technology to work, be it voice communications, broadband or electricity, it needs to work well in rural America. A partially-connected America makes about as much sense as building highways which are paved only 25 percent of the time."

Misty Perez Truedson, associate outreach director for Free Press, says some state governments have been working to prevent municipal Wi-Fi networks from deploying broadband. She believes local communities should be driving public policy instead.

"To make sure that municipal Wi-Fi and networks were actually supported, and that big carriers couldn't just sort-of come in and squash some of those local solutions, which we've seen."

Renee Shaw, Public News Service - KY