By: Jim Sipes
The Ottawa Herald
To say that I grew up in a different era, with much less technology would be an understatement.
I grew up with three TV channels, two of which were so fuzzy we didn’t bother to watch, the other looked like it was snowing. For a better signal we adjusted the antennae and put aluminum foil on the rabbit ears on the TV. Our phone service was a party line that we shared with several neighbors and one business. If you wanted on the phone you often had to ask the local gossip to kindly get off of the line.
Times certainly have changed. If someone would have told me I would be watching TV, sending emails, making video calls, texting, checking the grain markets, purchasing parts and supplies, looking up parts, downloading books, reading books, etc, etc, on my cordless, rechargeable smart phone, I would have probably just rolled my eyes. But here we are, even though I was slow to adopt the technology, today I use my phone constantly for news, weather, entertainment, social activities and business.
When I was a kid, a bad day was when it was raining and we couldn’t play outside. Today a bad day is when the internet is down and we don’t know what to do with ourselves and cannot conduct business.
The availability of broadband is extremely important to our lives. It provides a tremendous amount opportunity to rural America, but coverage is expensive for low populated areas and not all parts of rural America are as lucky as we are in SW Kansas.
My family and neighbors have the advantage of Pioneer Communications, a small rural phone cooperative that was founded and led by leaders that should be rewarded for their extremely brilliant foresight.
My grandfather, Glenn Sipes, served many years on their board and, proudly, they developed a small phone cooperative that is arguably one of the best in the nation. I live in a county of around 2,000, and I have excellent phone and internet service with fiber optics within two miles of my home. My mother-in-law lives in Western Tennessee in a county with a population of 26,773 and can’t get broadband without using a satellite.
According to United States Department of Agriculture Illinois State Director for Rural Development Colleen Callahan, ”[Broadband] is crucial to the rural area because it means the same thing that getting electricity to the rural area meant decades ago; it’s about infrastructure. Our rural communities are not going to be prosperous, they are not going to thrive, we’re not going to be able to encourage our young people to come back to rural communities, if we don’t have basic infrastructure and today high-speed internet is basic, you don’t do business without it.”
Rural broadband breaks down the barriers of distance and time, and allows rural residents the opportunity to participate in economic and social life well beyond their hometown or region. Rural businesses, once limited to a few local customers, now have the opportunity to seek regional, national or international customers, expanding their target customers from a few to thousands.
Broadband brings access to educational opportunities, health care, cultural events and entertainment that were once limited by distance, time and expense.
Imagine the advancement of rural development if more of our rural population could easily get a college degree online and develop businesses that draw national or international customers. The potential is enormous.
Unfortunately, providing rural broadband to sparsely populated areas is ITALveryITAL expensive. Without assistance from user funds paid by all voice and internet customers, as well as funds provided through USDA for rural development, the rural infrastructure would be very limited. According to Kasey Krueger, Pioneer Communications marketing manager, academic studies have found that broadband access led to more new businesses in rural areas, and that high levels of broadband adoption were associated with increased median household incomes and lower unemployment levels for rural residents. Broadband is essential for our rural economy.
Unfortunately, according to Sharon Strover, Director of Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute; Professor of Communication, University of Texas at Austin, 39 percent of rural residents lack internet access that meets even the FCC’s minimum definition of “broadband” service, compared to only 4 percent of urban residents.
The cost of infrastructure and cost of the service to the rural residents accounts for most of the lower access.
Developing rural infrastructure that provides the ability to modernize rural life, increase the household income and provide an opportunity to develop new businesses increases the GDP of rural areas, benefiting everyone.
One of the priorities of Kansas Farm Bureau is rural development. That is why KFB requested and recently received a waiver from the FCC to challenge the legitimacy of the coverage maps from various major cellular carriers in Kansas. Cellular is a large source for rural broadband. The cellular service providers’ coverage maps show great service but rural residents know that is not the case.
If you are interested in helping KFB challenge the coverage maps then go to www.kfb.org, download the app and follow the instructions of the website. We need your help to find the areas with poor coverage.
Once again, this is something that affects all of us in rural America. Rural broadband coverage is essential to our daily lives. It is currently our link to resources that were once unreachable. It is up to all of us to get our voices heard on this issue to ensure our future and that of generations to come.