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A Route to Rural Broadband?

Pete Springer/OPB

It may only be on the scale of a rounding error compared to the total $787 billion stimulus package, but the $7.2 billion to bring broadband internet service to under-served areas was music to Onno Husing’s ears. He’s been agititating for faster internet in rural areas for years, and now he’s hoping that a federal cash injection will be enough to convince regional ISPs to go the last mile for thousands of Oregon residents.

The details are still to be worked out, but some of the basics are known. (And you can always read the full bill here; a search for “broadband” will take you the relevant section.) The Departments of Commerce and Agriculture will offer grants to companies to provide broadband access to schools, libraries, medical and health care providers, public safety agencies, and colleges. They’ll also make a national map — the first of its kind — of who is offering what broadband services where.

And there’s even a lofty section describing the kinds of benefits Congress will be looking for from increased broadband availability:

advancing consumer welfare, civic participation, public safety and homeland security, community development, health care delivery, energy independence and efficiency, education, worker training, private sector investment, entrepreneurial activity, job creation and economic growth, and other national purposes.

(Apparently YouTube videos of cats vs. printers aren’t enough for the Feds.)

But spread out over the country, will $7.2 billion be enough to encourage previously recalcitrant cable and telephone companies to lay new lines in sparsely populated areas? Will this mean that — five years from now, say — a home business owner at the end of dirt of road in Gold Hill will be able to send hi-res photos to Dubai, or Skype with a customer in Shanghai?

And let’s say you agree that broadband internet has become a necessary link for commerce and culture. Does it follow that the federal government — ie you, the taxpayer — should subsidize its availability to rural Oregonians? If not, can rural communities pull themselves up by their own broadband bootstraps?


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