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By Staff | Feb 13, 2009

One the biggest drawbacks of living in rural America is the high cost and low quality of connectivity, which means, antiquated dial-up Internet speeds, costly satellite television and cellular phone service that cackles more than Grandma’s hens.

Congress hopes to address these needs in the Obama stimulus package. Presently, the House-passed version of the plan holds $6 billion in grants to expand America’s broadband networks. The Senate plan contains $9 billion in cash.

The bigger fight, however, won’t be over how much to spend; it’ll be over how best to spend it. And, with billions literally on the table, the battle promises to be a classic rural versus urban match with rural advocates out-lobbied and outspent by industry giants who want most of the loot for themselves and their urban subscribers.

The House plan employs grants to dole out its $6 billion. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service is put in charge of half the money, with $1.5 billion or so earmarked specifically for use in “rural areas without sufficient access to high-speed broadband service.”

The rest of the House money, $3 billion, would be invested through grants administered by the U.S. Commerce Department.

Much of it would flow to “unserved” rural areas while the remainder would be spent on better broadband in “underserved” areas.

The Senate’s $9 billion plan puts the oft-used tax credit carrot in front of hoped-for broadband newcomers and current telecom giants to entice them to expand current capacity or build new. Overshadowing these differing amounts and distinctly different approaches are two facts you must keep before your largely clueless legislators as the stimulus plan moves through Congress.

First, according to a June 2008 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development survey, America ranks somewhere between 15th and 21st in the world in broadband access, speed and adoption. Yes, not long ago America was No. 1.

Not surprising, though, in one way it still is.

“When it comes to broadband revenue,” notes Benjamin Lennett, a telecom policy expert at Washington, D.C.’s non-partisan New America Foundation, “we have the costliest broadband in the world.”

Which brings the second, more obvious fact to tattoo on the foreheads of our hired hands in Congress, that is, the folks who now want the stimulus billions (and the tax credit bribes to use them) are the same folks who charge the highest broadband rates in the world to deliver a product worse than what e-mailers in Luxembourg receive.

Before these companies receive one more dime of taxpayer cash to boost their profits, they should be hauled before Congress to explain their failures.

Wally Bowen, a veteran of the rural broadband wars in western North Carolina, has a better idea. “Before Congress gives any telecom one cent, it should order their executives to run their businesses for a week from a computer in rural America with dial-up Internet. We’d get rural broadband then, wouldn’t we?”

According to Bowen, the founder and now executive director of the non-profit Mountain Area Information Network, too many broadband policymakers operate from “a breathtaking absence of common sense” because they “aren’t tuned in to what’s happening on the ground.”

If today’s economic carnage is on par with that of the Depression, he opines, then today’s dearth of rural broadband products is on par with that era’s lack of rural electric service.

Solving it will require a second Rural Electrification Administration.

“The focus,” he urges, “should be on local networks, non-profits and cooperatives. Many are already doing it. What they need most is money and action to cut through today’s jungle of paperwork.” (Read about other ideas at http://www.dailyyonder.com).

Bowen’s right. If you want rural development, you need rural broadband, not more telecom billionaires.

Guebert is a syndicated columnist from Delavan, Ill. Reach him by e-mail at agcomm@sbcglobal.net

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