Roundup: Skating Into Retirement

Hanging up the skates • Guinea-pigging for a telco • Medicare cuts for home health • The cost of rural recycling • Bad water for years • Earning less is rural Yorkshire

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After a decade of delivering roller-skating events to small towns in western South Dakota, Joe Taggart is ready to hang up his wheels. The 74-year-old is looking for someone to purchase his business, which consists of a wooden trailer filled with roller skates that he rents to children at events on the weekend.

“Taggart has never heard of another mobile roller-skating business, which he said is uniquely suited to the needs of rural South Dakota,” reports the Meade County Times-Tribune. “There’s a lot of these little ranch towns that need sports to do besides football and basketball,” Taggart said.

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Carbon Hill, a town of about 2,000 residents in northwest Alabama, has been chosen by AT&T to test whether the communications giant can jump-start the transition from traditional copper-line phone service to new digital technologies in rural areas.

The Federal Communications Commission will rule this spring on AT&T’s request to use Carbon Hill and a Florida city (West Delray Beach, Florida, which has a large senior-citizen population) as a testing grounds for the transition.

AT&T says it needs to accelerate the process of customers moving from traditional phone service to Internet-based service that sends telephone signals via broadband instead of old copper wires. The company will also encourage customers who can’t get broadband through its Uverse system to switch to wireless service.

The move to Internet-based and wireless telephony is well underway across the United States. But rural areas lag in the transition because there frequently are not alternatives to traditional copper-line service. The Washington Post’s Brian Fung reports on some of the complexities around the so-called Internet Protocol (IP) transition:

One reason behind the tests is that nobody really knows what to expect from such a large-scale transition. If a power outage hits, for example, will user-purchased batteries last long enough, or will most people skimp out and risk losing communications in a crisis? Will the quality of wireless service match what subscribers get now, or will AT&T run into the same problems that faced Verizon when it tried to unveil a wireless-only option on Fire Island in New York? Carbon Hill and West Delray Beach offer especially challenging environments because the former is a sparsely populated rural town and the other’s residents are mainly seniors and retirees. A mistake in the test could cause vulnerable populations to lose service.

The tradeoff is that IP-based networks have the potential to substantially upgrade our phone calls. When a call is moving over a connection that can also carry other forms of traffic, the user can get new features — such as HD voice calls and even video — things that might seem ordinary to anyone who’s used a Web-enabled computer but are totally new to the humble telephone.

Unfortunately, the transition could leave hard-to-reach customers stranded. About 4 percent of Carbon Hill’s AT&T customers won’t be getting access to the new IP-based systems at all; while AT&T says it’s committed to finding solutions for those people, it doesn’t yet have a plan.

So what’s in store for the guinea pigs in Carbon Hill, and, by extension, the rest of rural America where digital and wireless service is spotty to nonexistent?

“We will not move to Phase 2 until everyone has a solution,” said Hank Hultquist, AT&T federal regulatory vice president.

“That solution may not come from us,” cautioned company lawyer Christopher Heimann.

That last statement is the catch. Currently, government regulation requires phone companies to serve nearly everyone if they want to serve anyone. The big question is whether government will adapt the regulatory framework to the new IP-based communications to ensure that all Americans have access to telephones and broadband.

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Cuts in Medicare’s payments for home health care could result in a loss of services to some rural areas, reports the Bend, Oregon, Bulletin.

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Two rural Indiana recycling programs are having a tough time balancing their budgets, reports the Bloomington Herald-Times (via Seattle’s Post Intelligencer).

High fuel costs and low income from recyclables have county governments considering turning recycling programs over to private enterprise, rather than subsidizing the service from public funds.

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Residents of Charleston, West Virginia, have had an awful time with getting safe drinking water since the January chemical spill fouled the city’s municipal water supply. “But many rural West Virginians outside the reach of the spill have been living without tap water for drinking for months — or even years,” reports Sarah Plummer of the Associated Press.

The story examines communities where well water is contaminated and others where communities have shuttered their water-treatment facilities because of lack of funds.

Lack of money, crumbling infrastructure and the deteriorating quality of well water have left scores of rural residents in southern West Virginia without tap water that is safe to drink or bathe in. …

‘‘The biggest problem we face regarding water is that infrastructure money is slated to be cut in half. The 2015 state budget will cut funds from $40 million to $20 million,’’ [Summers County Commissioner Jack David] Woodrum said.

‘‘Nine counties in the Kanawha Valley experienced a terrible thing to be without clean water,’’ he said, referring to the Charleston-area water crisis. ‘‘But it is an experience that rural West Virginians experience every day.’’

David Cole, executive director of Regional I Planning and Development Council, which serves the six southernmost counties including McDowell, estimates it would cost more than $250 million to meet top priority water and sewage needs in the region. But grant funding is even harder to secure for many of these small, rural towns where populations are aging and dwindling, Cole said.

McDowell County Commissioner Gordon Lambert said the he felt sorry for people in the Charleston area after toxins from a chemical plant last month leaked into the Elk River and then into the city’s water supply. That left 300,000 people without clean drinking water for a week or more.

‘‘I’m sure it was terrible up there,’’ Lambert said. ‘‘But some people here have faced not having water for numerous years.’’

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Nearly 40% of residents in parts of rural Yorkshire, England, earn less than a living wage, the Yorkshire Post reports.

 

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