A group of rural residents living east of Madison, Wisconsin, gathered near Portage of Columbia County to discuss their lack of affordable high speed access to the Internet. These are people for whom slow, overpriced DSL would be an improvement.
Lack of access to the Internet is a drain on rural economies — their real estate market suffer and they are unable to telecommute, when they would benefit more from it than most who do have the option. They lack access to long-distance education opportunities in a time when the cost of gas makes driving to school prohibitively expensive.
Andy Lewis, who has been working with the Building Community Capacity through Broadband Project with U-W Extension, was on hand to discuss some of the lessons learned through their work, which is largely funded by a broadband stimulus award.
The incumbent providers encouraged residents without access to aggregate their demand and create petitions to demonstrate the available demand. Of course they did. And if CenturyLink decides it can get a sufficient return on its slow and unreliable DSL, they will build it out to some of those unserved areas. This is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario for rural residents. DSL was starting to be obsolete years ago.
The better solution is finding nearby cooperatives and munis that will extend next-generation networks that can provide fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet. Getting a DSL to a town will do very little to attract residents and nothing to attract businesses. It is a 20th century technology in a rapidly evolving 21st century world.
The Beaver Dam Daily Citizen covered the meeting, which eventually turned away from how to beg for broadband to how they can build it themselves:
But several attendees asked why the government can’t play a role in making high-speed service available everywhere, in the same way that the government helped bring about rural electrification and telephone service.
This is a very good question. They may decide not to follow that path, but given the importance of access to the Internet, they should look at options for building a network that puts community needs first. North of Madison, Reedsburg has built an impressive FTTH network and we have been tracking progress of the Fiber-to-the-Farm effort in Minnesota’s Sibley County.
Unfortunately, AT&T’s incredible influence in the state capital has made it more difficult for communities to build the networks they need — even in places like Columbia County where AT&T is not and will not connect rural residents. Such is the price of living under governments that make policy based on the interests of powerful special interests.
There was a time when the ideology of self-reliance was considered American and even conservative. But now the idea of self-reliance is largely abandoned as communities first seek to beg distant corporations (with a history of royally ripping them off) to connect them and only consider solving their own problems with local investments as a last-ditch effort, which could be too controversial.
Update: This meeting was hosted by the Public Service Commission as part of a larger effort to create a state broadband plan. Such processes are typically dominated by interests of incumbent providers — a model that was emphatically rejected by the FDR Administration when developing its plan for electrification. Electrification was wildly successful; expanding broadband by begging incumbents has been a dismal failure.