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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.

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Most small towns enjoy some form of broadband service, though lack of competition means it is often slower and more expensive than residents would like. Choices are more limited in the countryside. Broadband services offered by cable or telephone companies seldom reach beyond town boundaries. Wireless companies serve wide expanses of countryside, but coverage can be spotty, and trees, hills, and even bad weather can disrupt the signals. William Weaver, a farmer in Illinois's Clark County and chairman of the county board of commissioners, says many farmers can't get good service.

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The quality of Internet service in rural areas often depends on the size of the local telephone company, experts say. Small independent utilities, such as telephone companies, are usually quicker to provide high-speed service than are the telecom giants. Rural communities contemplating starting their own Internet services are turning for inspiration and expertise to successful examples. One is Princeton, Ill. In 2003, the town received a complaint from a large employer about the poor quality of Internet service. Fearful of losing jobs, Princeton laid fiber-optic cable to the town's largest businesses. It also began offering broadband to homes over the town's power lines, using one of the newest forms of Internet technology.

Other communities have extended high-speed service deep into the countryside. One of the best known is Scottsburg, Ind., a town of 6,000 that in 2003 started up a wireless network for Scott County. The service proved so popular that Scottsburg expanded it to nine counties. "We've been waiting forever to get something out here," says Edie Sanders, a stay-at-home mother who recently hooked up to the network.

Online key for government services

Rural residents need high-speed Internet for better access to medical care, government services, and education, say local officials. It's also become essential for rural businesses, they argue.

"The first thing these companies want is to have high-speed Internet access," says Robert Bridges, mayor of Rushville, Ind., a central Indiana town that has installed its own fiber-optic network. "Without that, it's difficult to entice anyone to move into the community."

Not everyone supports these local initiatives. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says at least 19 states regulate or ban government-operated Internet services. But such legislation has failed in other states. State Sen. David Ford, who represents a mainly rural area, helped defeat a ban in Indiana. "I'm really a pro-business, conservative politician, but ... there is an argument to do this for an economic development reason," he says.

In Sullivan, officials say they tried several years ago to persuade the local telephone company to provide broadband Internet. The company agreed – but only if Sullivan paid the installation costs. The town did not shrink from going ahead on its own. Like many rural communities, it had been providing electric power to its residents since before World War II.

In April, the FCC announced an inquiry into whether broadband Internet was reaching all Americans "in a reasonable and timely fashion."

In Sullivan, officials say wireless transmitters have been delivered, but the community is still negotiating for bandwidth (it costs more than they thought), and looking for experts to turn to if they encounter problems. They have a powerful incentive to do well.

"It's a small town," Short says. "People know where to find you."