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.
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.
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.
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."