You flip a switch, and the lights come on. You pick up the receiver, and you get a dial tone. No matter where you are in America, that’s how it’s supposed to work, right? Electric and phone service are indispensible parts of modern life. Most reasonable folks would agree that every community, no matter how rural, deserves access.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for rural access to high-speed internet service. Today’s Kansas City Star has a great article about the digital divide between urban and rural areas, and the challenges this disparity presents to people and businesses across rural America.
In 2010, high-speed internet access isn’t a nice-to-have toy that lets people update their Facebook status and download music. It’s an indispensible part of everyday life and commerce. For anybody who might question that assertion, I challenge you to check your email with dial-up and get back to me. I bet the average broadband user won’t last two minutes waiting for his or her inbox to load before angrily closing the browser window in frustration.
There’s been a lot of hand wringing among politicians and policy makers over how to fix this problem – but the solution seems painfully obvious. All you have to do is look back 75 years to see how we electrified rural America.
In the 1930s, we faced the exact same problem with electric service that we see today with broadband service. Stringing expensive poles and wires down miles of sparsely populated country roads to serve a handful of customers didn’t make economic sense to for-profit utilities. So the government stepped in and offered low-cost loans to consumer-owned cooperatives willing to help bring power to their local communities.
All across rural America, people united to transform their communities and ensure they had the same technology and opportunities as their urban brethren.
Now keep in mind, these weren’t government handouts…they were loans the cooperatives paid back over time.
Sturges Word has been fortunate to work with cooperatives across America, and we’ve seen first hand the amazing work cooperatives do in their communities. They are reliable utility providers, powerful engines for economic development, and outstanding community partners.
Many utility cooperatives, including current and former clients of ours, have worked hard to help bring broadband to rural areas, but they can’t do it alone. If we’re serious about ensuring equitable access to basic services for all Americans, we should stop talking about the problem, and start solving it. We have a proven model and an established network of reliable providers…all we need now is the policy leadership to make it happen.