WASHINGTON, June 15, 2010 – Today’s broadband expansion throughout the United States faces similar challenges to wiring the nation with electricity decades ago, and the nation’s businesses, consumers and government must work together to tap into the resources that high-speed internet access offers.
In the keynote address prior to BroadbandBreakfast.com’s panel on challenges to adoption and availability of rural broadband, Rural Utilities Service Administrator Jonathan Adelstein stressed a number of areas where his agency could improve its broadband outreach, while offering a vision for the future and a historical context for the present debate.
According to Adelstein, the debate over high-speed internet access has echoes of the original debate over the provision of electricity, especially at the RUS, which was originally known as the Rural Electrification Service.
“Rural broadband is really the most critical technology facing rural America since electrification,” Adelstein said, adding that the current debate was especially like the New Deal in that the “big utility companies” have little interest in providing their services to rural areas. This was in contrast with the government, which, Adelstein said, viewed electrification as a priority like today’s government sees rural broadband as key to the nation’s economic growth.
Agriculture Secretary “Tom Vilsack has put broadband near the very top of his agenda,” Adelstein said. “It’s one of his five pillars for rural America. It’s become a critical, indispensible building block in rural America.”
Adelstein expressed optimism surrounding current FCC plans for broadband expansion under the National Broadband Plan, but suggested that further work was necessary: “[The plan’s] just not enough to connect 100 percent of American households to the internet.”
Adelstein’s speech centered around the statistics showing fivve key disparities between rural and urban areas. The first was the issue of infrastructure. “One in 10 rural broadband adopters say they can’t get broadband where they live – twice the national average,” Adelstein said.
The second issue was the problem of access. “Sixty-eight percent of households in non-rural America choose to get broadband, while only 50 percent of households in rural America subscribe,” Adelstein said, citing availability and cost as potential reasons for this disparity.
“Cost is a bigger variable in rural areas because of income,” Adelstein noted, adding that costs for broadband service in rural areas might actually be higher due to the lack of demand and the special infrastructure needed. “We don’t have all the data on that, but I strongly suspect it,” he said.
The fourth issue with broadband access, according to Adelstein, was the problem of digital literacy. “Digital literacy is lower in rural areas,” he said. “A smaller percentage of people are familiar with computers. They don’t see the relevance of the internet in their daily lives.”
Adelstein pointed out that this problem frequently goes away once access enters the area, at which point the population tends to use broadband to take distance education courses, improve medicine and upgrade infrastructure, a trend he suggested would persist if access were expanded. Finally, Adelstein mentioned the issue of age, noting that the average age of a rural resident is 50 years versus the 46 years in urban areas.
During a question and answer session, Adelstein was pressed on how much equality there should be between rural and urban broadband service aid, and suggested that rural areas should receive increased help. “I don’t think there should be a differential. Rural areas need every bit as much broadband as urban areas,” Adelstein said, adding that this might require more help, given that rural areas often lack the requisite speeds to carry off high-bandwidth professional actions such as telemedicine.
Following Adelstein’s speech, the panel took up the issue of rural availability by laying out some potential organizational and institutional obstacles that might exist for the provision of universal broadband. Jeffrey Arnold, the deputy legislative director of the National Association of Counties, said: In order for a community to effectively pursue broadband, it has to have a vision. You can have all the federal money in the world, and companies willing to partner with local officials, but if there isn’t vision and leadership, it’ll fail.”
Meanwhile, Steven Berry, president and CEO of the Rural Cellular Association, suggested that the situation might not be bleak for local governments. “Whether you know it or not, you have enormous power in terms of your ability to anchor clients,” he said.
Claiborne Crain, a senior staff member at the House Agriculture Committee, gave an agnostic answer as to whether more funding for broadband initiatives would be forthcoming from the legislature, but suggested that areas of deployment for that funding might be easier to find than originally expected.
“I think it’s going to depend on what the members are hearing in their districts,” Crain said, adding that some lawmakers are waiting for better mapping of broadband availability and adoption before committing to funding.
Curtis Anderson, vice president and general counsel for MELE Associates, took a more pessimistic approach on the subject, saying “the federal government has a habit of making things complicated,” and worrying about the lack of centralization in broadband policy. “It would be easier if there was a one-stop shop.”
Jennie Chandra, regulatory counsel and director of federal government affairs for Windstream, suggested that rural access providers such as Windstream may be beginning to see the ability to supply more widely. “We now have deployed broadband to approximately 90 percent of our access lines,” Chandra said. “Windstream was very encouraged by components of the [National Broadband Plan], especially cost reform.”