Billion-Dollar Decisions Depend on Rural Broadband
When broadband is available, rural communities put it to use — often in ways unimaginable to those in the cities (or in some offices in Congress).
ARCADIA, Iowa — Broadband Internet service is being used for vital commercial purposes in rural America — whether it is assisting with remote irrigation in Nebraska or monitoring temperatures in livestock buildings around the nation.
In Arcadia, Iowa, Dave Leiting, manager of the FAC Farmers Cooperative, uses high-speed service to quickly gather data central to the business lives of farmers in a vast area of the Hawkeye State. He knows, for example, details on Monday night’s rainfall in Argentina (2-1/2 inches) and other information affecting key markets for Iowans.
“These are hundred-million-dollar, billion-dollar decisions being made on people’s crops that are being raised for people living in the cities,” says Leiting, who serves on the board of the soybean company AGP, based in Omaha, Nebraska.
He can’t imagine life without broadband Internet service, which, according to the Federal Communications Commission, can be provided over power lines, cable, fiber optics, wireless, dedicated service lines or satellite.
A New York Times article published this week, found several critics of the proposed stimulus spending on rural broadband who asked if it was, in fact, “a $9 billion cyber-bridge to nowhere.” (A federal economic stimulus package that passed the House contains $6 billion for broadband, while a pending Senate plan includes the $9 billion.)
One person, identified as a resident of Connecticut in the discussion board on The Times article, doesn’t think rural Americans deserve high-speed service. “If these people wanted to be connected to the moving world, MOVE,” the commenter wrote. “This will not stimulate economic growth, keep the hillbillies home,” said another on the Times site, a commenter with the net handle of Normalvalues.
Leiting and other rural business leaders say they’ve personally seen the impact of high-speed service. “When you are in the rural setting of North America you have to travel great distances to get at some of the assets that are more easily obtained in metropolitan areas,” Leiting said. “I wouldn’t do without it. The more rural you are, the more important it is.”
Some parts of the country aren’t as fortunate as the relatively prosperous and progressive region of rural Iowa where Leiting lives, where broadband access is abundant. U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., has been pushing for the rural broadband monies in the stimulus package to assist specific towns in his state.
“As a nation, we’re lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to investing in broadband infrastructure — especially in our rural areas. I know what a challenge this is in the Eastern Panhandle,” Rockefeller said, according to the Martinsburg (W.V.) Journal. “Many people in Morgan, Berkeley and Jefferson counties don’t have access to what has fast become an essential service and a fundamental need in today’s world.”
It’s not just Democrats like Rockefeller who are promoting rural broadband. In Alabama, conservative Republican Gov. Bob Riley has launched an initiative to expand rural high-speed Internet service — a program that would stand to benefit from the stimulus proposals in both in the U.S. House and Senate.
Jeff Helms, a spokesman for the Montgomery-based Alabama Farmers Federation, told the Times Daily of Florence, Ala., that farmers need high-speed service to keep up with the markets, weather reports and other information. This is information that Leiting and his cooperative board can obtain much more quickly.
The Denver Post reports that one area of the nation poised to benefit from a broadband boost in a stimulus package is the Mountain West “where sparse population and geographic hurdles have made it harder and costlier to roll out high-speed Internet.”
Only 58 percent of Coloradans have high-speed Internet, The Post reports.
Specifically, Leiting said high-speed access is used in parts of Nebraska for controlling irrigation systems. At remote livestock buildings in the nation, it is high-speed Internet connections that tell workers about temperature shifts that may demand rapid responses, he said.
In southern Iowa, Gregg Connell, executive director of the Shenandoah Chamber & Industry Association and a former top state economic development official, said the businesses in his area rely heavily on high-speed Internet. “The bandwidth is like the railroad was 100 years ago,” Connell said. “If you don’t have it, you’re not going to survive.”
He said the Times’ framing of the debate reveals some typical “East Coast-West Coast understanding of the Midwest.” Connell said Iowans will do the right thing with infrastructure — use it to work harder and produce more gross national product. But he’s not so sure high-speed Internet is always put the best use in New York City.
“I guess we need to provide more bandwidth so we can have more Bernie Madoffs,” Connell said, referring to the alleged $50 billion Big Apple-based swindler.