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Rural US towns – left out by broadband – build their own

More than 300 communities consider launching local high-speed Internet service.

By Richard MertensContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 7, 2007

Sullivan, Ill.

When Lisa Shuman went looking for a resort to celebrate her 15th wedding anniversary, she did what many people do: She turned on her home computer and searched the Internet.

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But out here amid the corn and soybean expanses of central Illinois, going online can be about as fun as pulling weeds. "I wanted to give up," says Mrs. Shuman, who lives on a farm a mile from town and uses a dial-up connection. She washed dishes and folded laundry while Internet pages trickled down across the phone line.

Slow. Expensive. Unreliable. These are complaints of many rural residents about their Internet service. But for small-town America, the problem is bigger than mere inconvenience. Increasingly, leaders in rural communities are coming to believe that access to high- speed Internet is tied to their towns' future survival. They're becoming less patient with telecommunications companies, which they say have lagged in providing the service their residents need at a price they can afford.

"Sometimes these big companies don't think it's worth their effort to come into towns like ours with the latest and best technologies," says Ann Short, Sullivan's mayor. "But we have needs. And we're deserving."

Tired of waiting, the town of Sullivan plans to start its own high-speed Internet network this summer, using a combination of fiber-optic cable, wireless transmitters mounted on water towers, and Internet signals sent over power lines. Mayor Short and other officials expect the system, which will cost half a million dollars, to give residents in and around Sullivan faster, cheaper, and more reliable service than private companies have provided. "We feel we can do it better," she says.

Many towns eye high-speed access

Other communities are reaching the same conclusion. More than 300, from cities to small towns, are considering launching their own high-speed Internet services, most of them using wireless technologies, says James Baller, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who has represented many of the towns. Hundreds of them have already done so, he says.

"There is a growing consensus that everything that we do in the future is going to be based on broadband platform," Mr. Baller says. "If you don't have access in the reasonably foreseeable future, you cannot participate as full citizens in the emerging knowledge-based information economy. Nobody wants to be left out."

President Bush seemed to acknowledge this sentiment when, in 2004, he called for "affordable" broadband technology in "every corner of our country" by 2007. Telecommunications companies have gradually expanded broadband Internet into rural areas, but they have not met expectations, given the expansion of the Internet in business, education, and other areas of American life.

"There's a lot of grumbling about providers, that they aren't moving fast enough," says Norman Walzer, an economist at Western Illinois University in Macomb and founder of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs. "From the provider's perspective, if they don't perceive enough of a market, they're not going to do it. It's really a speed question. You can get dial-up practically anywhere, but dial-up is not going to let you do the things you want to do."

The Pew Internet and American Life Project confirms what many rural residents suspect: The gap in broadband Internet usage between rural America and the rest of the country remains wide. A survey last year found that 29 percent of rural Americans had broadband at home compared with 48 percent of urban and suburban residents.