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Information and Communications Technologies: Taking It to the Country

Rural communities are leveraging advanced information and communications technologies to compete with major metropolitan areas for new investment.

Craig Guillot (Apr/May 09)
(page 3 of 3)
The Stimulus Boost
In many rural areas, co-ops and partnerships with local business alliances and communications providers have proven to be a successful model in expanding broadband infrastructure. Expecting to receive more than 10,000 applications for funding, the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Agriculture have been allocated a combined $7.2 billion from the $789 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to use for broadband deployment. At press time, specifics for the distribution had not been outlined, but a large group of diverse organizations agree that the criteria should be based on the potential for job creation.

The Rural Vermont Broadband Project of the Vermont Council on Rural Development is another example of how grassroots development and government funding can help bring broadband infrastructure to rural areas. Paul Costello, the organization's executive director, says it has worked not only to bring broadband to rural areas but also to coordinate policy conversation. In 2007, Governor Jim Douglas called for the state to achieve universal broadband access by 2010.

According to Akamai Technologies' "State of the Internet" report for the fourth quarter of 2008, Vermont now ranks as the state with the seventh-fastest broadband in the United States. "We are leading an effort on part of the stimulus package money in Vermont," says Costello. "We're doing this all very quickly and I think it will [increase] the use of [broadband for business] throughout the state."

Many in the ICT industry also say that big broadband projects in rural areas can't succeed without the support of the community. As an example, C. Sam Walls, president of Connect Arkansas - a nonprofit organization aimed at bringing broadband access to all of Arkansas by 2013 - points to the results of the 2008 State New Economy Index survey, based on the responses of 608 registered Arkansas voters: 29 percent have never used the Internet; 7 percent were unsure of what broadband or high-speed Internet access meant; 30 percent would not subscribe to broadband service even if it was affordable and made available to every household in Arkansas.

With that kind of public opinion, Walls says, it is often hard to convince voters and taxpayers on the importance of laying multimillion-dollar T3 lines to the community. "We believe a large percentage of it is attributable to the fact that they have no familiarity with it," he says. "That may be because they don't have the access or exposure that would allow them to find the relevancy of that to them."

Walls also says that the state and federal funding is critical in deploying broadband infrastructure in rural areas because ICT companies often have no financial incentive to expand into such areas. Big business operations and high-capacity broadband customers can set up in an area without the infrastructure, but the broadband companies can't build the infrastructure in an area without big users. In many rural areas, only government funding and stimulus money can entice broadband companies to lay the first lines of development.

In Walls' opinion, education is key to bringing communities of every size on board: "We're in a hurry, and if we as a nation are going to be competitive on a global scale.we have to get this done and we have to get it done quickly."
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