Got Rural Broadband?

Windmill on my farmWe all know that farm life can be dangerous. I'm pleasantly surprised to have all my limbs and sustained no major injuries in the last 4 months since I moved onto a 12-acre farm. It wasn't climbing the windmill (pictured right), driving the tractor, or sawing wood that had me most concerned so far.
No, it was our attempts to get high speed internet access.
I'm a pretty heavy internet user - everything from streaming radio programs and videos to working from home. For me, internet is as necessary as electricity or gas.
The saga has included many phone calls and voicemails, numerous trips by technicians to our house, and arguments over distance to the house or how many trees we needed to cut down. We had to wait for the 10 foot high snow drifts to melt and were delayed for a few days when we lost electricity due to an ice storm.
They said we needed a utility pole to mount the internet receiver on, we asked, "How high?" They decided 30 feet was sufficient, so we bartered with our neighbors for a pole and borrowed the auger to dig 5 feet down. My naivety was obvious when I thought two relatively strong adults could hoist it up without machinery - not that we didn't try.
Our 1960's era Farmall 460 tractor (pictured left, with the pole) performed admirably, and in no time we were able to lift it to a 45 degree angle. We added some ropes for safety because having hundreds of pounds of wood balanced above your head is a little unnerving, and held our breath as the pole began to tilt towards the outer edge of the tractor bucket.
I had just tied the last knot in a rope that was meant to pull the pole upright when it fell, and my second thought was about the fact that seconds before, my fingers had been intertwined in the rope that was now 15 feet away. (My first thought was a string of cursing.)
The pole is now up, and we finally have internet access at home that doesn't cost a bundle with a speed of up to 1 megabyte download, which is reasonably fast.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included $150 million in rural broadband infrastructure projects, which will help 12 communities gain better access to high speed internet. The government money is matched by $68 million in private investment for a total of $218 million. While that's great for those communities, it doesn't really make a dent in the need.
Broadband is vital infrastructure for businesses in 2010, similar to the importance of electricity in the 1930s before the Rural Electrification Act was passed in 1936. Through that act crews of electricians put up power lines in rural areas and wired houses and barns. The law was later amended to add phone lines.
Before 1936 electricity was largely unavailable in rural communities, in part because long distances required more expensive infrastructure that would cut into private industry's profit margins. This is also similar to our current situation - internet providers have tapped the markets that are easy for them to access, so without additional incentives, regulations or competition, they won't extend high speed internet much further.
We've even asked our local internet provider in the past if they plan to extend service - they said no.
With the advent electricity, rural communities were able to continue thriving, and we need similar treatment for broadband now. President Roosevelt spent $50 million in 1937 to electrify rural places. That's the equivalent of $77 billion in 2010 dollars when you adjust for 70 years of inflation.
Rural America needs a much greater level of investment to compete successfully in the 21st century. In 1936 member-owned electric cooperatives were formed to create the needed infrastructure, and they worked in part because they responded to the needs of their members.

Local entities such as municipal governments should be able to access the technology and capital to deliver high speed internet. Nothing spurs economic activity better than a little honest competition, and perhaps if current internet providers had to compete for customers, rural places would have the fast, reliable internet that we need.
(Here is the text of the Rural Electrification Act. It's actually readable! They sure don't write bills like this anymore.)