Access for all: push for rural high speed internet

By Carolyn Roy - bio|email

CADDO PARISH, LA (KSLA) - The days of the dial-up screech are over for most of us, replaced by faster, quieter cable and DSL.  But for many of who those live in rural areas, the silence doesn't necessarily mean they've joined the 21st Century.  In Jerome Nicholas' case, it's not for lack of trying.  He's had Comcast out several times to check on whether he can be hooked up with cable internet.  "He'll say 'Nope.  Cable stops about a half-mile up the road, we can't do it,'" Nicholas recalls.

Nicholas is landscape architect who works out of his home on Wallace Lake Road.  It's set far off the road just outside Shreveport's city limits at the end of a long, curving dirt driveway.

"We're landscape architects, so we're basically in the information business. For us it's really critical." A lot of the information involved comes in the form of large files that take too long time to transfer with a slow connection. "Dialup was just getting to the point where it was just unusable, because the websites are just graphically a lot richer."

AT&T DSL service would bring blazing fast internet access, but it, too, remains tantalizingly out of reach.  Digital subsriber lines use existing copper phone lines with special hardware on the switch and user ends of the line.  It allows for a continuous digital connection over the phone lines, without tying up the analog signal used to make calls.  Nicholas says he's been told the switch required to extend the service to his area has been installed, but he says he's been unable to get an answer as to when it might be hooked up. "I say 'Well can you tell me? 'No. We just don't have a timetable.'"

After exhausting all other options, Nicholas reluctantly went with "Wild Blue" satellite service.  It's AT&T's offering in areas where DSL doesn't reach.

He says it's about twice as fast as dial-up, more expensive than cable, less reliable than both and still not very high speed.  Using the online web site, speakeasy.com, Nicholas demonstrated his connection speed for KSLA News 12.  "I believe the satellite people advertise it as 2.2 or something like that.  I've never gotten more than about 1.7, and that varies because of who's using it and the weather and things like that." That, he says, is just not good enough.  "It's just an essential tool that you have to have nowadays to work. We do online banking and it's just aggravatingly slow."

Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell says Nicholas is not alone, judging by the phones calls he gets on the issue. "Every day.  Biggest problem.  We get more complaints on that than anything."

That's why Campbell continues to push on his campaign promise of high-speed internet access for all. "It's not a luxury item anymore, it's a necessity."

But, he says providers have been slow to answer the call.  "I'm disappointed with AT&T. When they merged (in December 2006) with Bellsouth, one of their promises were, 'We're gonna give high speed internet to everyone.'  Well, they haven't done that." Campbell says they were due to fulfill that obligation by the end of 2007. "They didn't tell us they were coming with Wild Blue.  They said, 'When we merge these companies now, we're gonna provide high speed internet.'   Well, when you tell me you're gonna provide high speed internet, I took it to mean everybody in Castor, everybody at Elm Grove, everybody in Plain Dealing, everybody at Pioneer, Louisiana, everybody at Tallulah.  You know, that everybody was gonna get it. They didn't say with any kind of 'except...'  And now we got 'em merged, they got what they wanted and they're real hard to talk to, so that's why we're putting the pressure on them to get it out."

AT&T did not respond to our requests for an interview, but released this statement:

"AT&T is also committed to ongoing investments in both the wired and wireless broadband network.  As a company we are planning to invest more than $17 billion this year.  From 2006-2008 we invested over $1.3 billion in Louisiana alone. We provide broadband coverage across our entire coverage area with wired, wireless  and satellite solutions."

Extending DSL service to rural areas is expensive.  Installing the equipment and lines to cover sparsely residential areas isn't attractive if they can't recoup the cost. Campbell explains that providers are telling him that they would be more willing to spend the considerable capital extending service to rural areas, if they knew they would recover the cash through a high percentage of subscriptions.  "That's not my problem," says Campbell.  "My problem is that people need it and it's not a luxury anymore." But he does want more people to sign up wherever possible. "If they want it, they need to sign up, because we're asking the companies to spend the money to bring it to us, but it is important that the subscription rate is good."

The Louisiana Public Service Commission does not have authority over cable TV or cable Internet, but Campbell says he is looking forward to participating in three grant-funded broadband projects that will, for example, map broadband penetration by all types including cable, and will also include broadband by cable providers in promotional efforts and public computing centers.

The "Louisiana Partnership for Rural Broadband Connectivity" has applied for the three federal grants, totaling $5 million.  The new coalition is based at the Coordinating and Development Corporation, a non-profit economic-development corporation in Shreveport.

One grant is for a statewide project and the other two apply to 29 North Louisiana parishes:

$2.24 million to create a Louisiana broadband map and web site to identify the availability of high-speed internet access by parish;

$1 million for a "Sustainable Adoption" program to inform North Louisiana citizens about the benefits of high-speed internet service and encourage its use; and

$1.5 million for public computer centers that would provide free broadband access at specially-equipped centers in 29 parishes of North Louisiana.

Coordinating and Development Corporation President Max LeComte said the grant money is part of the "american Recovery and Reinvestmeent Act," the economic stimulus passed by Congress in February.  "The stimulus bill includes $7.2 billion in grants, loans and loan guarantees to spread broadband access throughout America," LeComte said.  He expects to hear this month about the statewide mapping grant.  Responses on the Sustainable Adoption and Public Computing Centers grant applciations are expected in November.

It's an effort AT&T acknowledged in it's statement: "AT&T remains supportive of the Federal Government's effort to fund greater broadband deployment and adoption throughout the states. Part of that effort includes mapping projects, so that stimulus funding will be targeted to un-served areas where it is most needed, which we support."

Broadband penetration across the state has increased some 21% since 2007.  The most recent statistics from the FCC show 1,552,888 high-speed lines as of June 2008.  Jerome Nicholas looks forward to the day when he can join their ranks.  "We feel like we've made a small step forward with satellite, but the rest of the world is leaving us behind."

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