Broadband important for rural areas, groups say

Without broadband, Becky Collins would be out of business.

Collins, owner of Granny B’s Clothesline, said she was able to leave her job filing out Medicare forms and start her own children’s clothing business because of broadband availability in Homer, Louisiana, population 3,800. Collins, who started out selling dresses to friends, left her Medicare paperwork job in 2006.

Collins, speaking at a broadband policy forum sponsored by the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA), called on U.S. lawmakers and private groups to continue to push for broadband in rural areas. “Our downtown is virtually dead,” Collins said. “If I opened a business in downtown Homer … maybe five people a day might come into my store. Now, I have customers from around the world.”

The broadband forum came as two U.S. agencies, the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Rural Utilities Service (RUS), get ready to distribute US$7.2 billion for broadband deployment beginning later this year. The IIA pushes for broadband to continue to be a top priority in the U.S. government.

Several speakers at the broadband forum, including professional basketball player Chris Bosh and West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, made their cases for why universal broadband availability is important in the U.S.

“I look at the Internet the same way as my grandparents looked at electricity in 1930,” Manchin said. “This is absolutely as needed … as that was.”

Manchin, in his 2005 state of the state address, called for universally available broadband in West Virginia by 2010. “I made that statement having no idea how we were going to get it done,” he said.

The state, however, is on track to meet that goal, with help from private firms including Verizon Communications and Cisco Systems, Manchin said.

While most speakers at the IIA forum called for more government support for broadband, Scott Wallsten, questioned the goals of a huge economic stimulus package passed earlier this year that included the money for NTIA and RUS. Wallsten, vice president for research and senior fellow at the deregulation-focused think tank the Technology Policy Institute, said there’s little economic data to support pushing broadband out to many rural areas.

It would make more sense for U.S. policy to focus on helping low-income people afford existing broadband service than to deploy broadband to every rural area in the country, Wallsten said.

“I tell people, ‘When you come for water and sewer money, you’d better make sure you put wires in that ditch,’” he said. “I’m not going to pay to dig that ditch twice.”

IIA also released the results of a Pew Internet and American Life Project survey showing that 63 percent of U.S. adults now have broadband connections at home, compared to 54 percent at the end of 2007.

The survey also found that the current economic recession largely hasn’t affected broadband adoption. The April survey found that just 9 percent of respondents had cancelled or cut back online service in the past 12 months, while 22 percent of respondents had cut back or cancelled cable TV service, and another 22 percent had cut back on cell phone service.

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