WILL STICKS LICK BROADBAND FIX?

When Bob Dylan sang "Time passes slowly up here in the mountains," he wasn't referring to the speed of Web pages loading on his computer. But this month I've had plenty of time to think about that Dylan lyric, as well as re-read the paper and stare at the hummingbird that flutters outside my window at my western Massachusetts retreat. This is dial-up country, and my browser refreshes in slo-mo, my mailbox fills up in dribbles and two coats of paint can dry before a PowerPoint file downloads. Though the Berkshires are only hours away from superwired citadels like New York and Boston, in terms of telecommunications this might as well be Nepal.

The sticks are getting shafted when it comes to broadband. The Pew Internet and American Life Project study reports that rural users are only half as likely as urbanites to use high-speed Internet service, and that two thirds of rural dial-up users either don't know of their options to get the fast stuff or have checked it out and learned for sure they can't get it. There are just too many areas like mine, where cable companies never bothered to lay wire and telcos haven't made the "final mile" investment to extend broadband to their phone customers. Earlier this year Verizon canceled its plans to make DSL upgrades in this part of the county, explaining it wasn't worth the expense. The Berkshire Eagle gave one resident's response: "You've just given us a death sentence."

Hyperbole, but the guy has a point. High-speed Internet is quickly becoming an essential, just like electricity and phone service. Dial-up is a temporary setback for me but a full-time reality for many rural residents. If someplace doesn't have broadband, people are less likely to move there and start businesses there. A century ago our government pursued a policy of "universal access" to make sure that those technologies would be available to all. In that spirit, President George W. Bush has set a goal of high-speed Internet access available in every home in America by 2007. But where's the beef? "It's one thing to set a goal, and another to create policies to make it happen," says Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from South Dakota. "Everybody understands that universal access is broken."

Dorgan, along with Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, is sponsoring a bill that would direct up to $500 million from the telephone Universal Service Fund (one of those confusing charges on your long-distance bill) to building out broadband in unserved areas. A good start, but compared with the highway bill the president signed last week--a breathtaking porkfest that designated $286 billion for overpasses, museum renovations and bridges to nowhere--it seems comically modest.

The good news for rural America is that new wireless technologies might make it much easier for companies to extend broadband down the unpaved roads and over the hills. Here in the Berkshires a company called WiSpring is hoping to use something called "fixed wireless" (sort of a cross between Wi-Fi and satellite, with powerful transmitters on poles and sensitive receivers in the home) to serve the towns here. As it turns out, Verizon itself is looking at fixed wireless as a way to get its customers into the cyber fast lane; last week it expanded a trial program with three towns in Illinois and one in Pennsylvania.

It's great that new ideas might help extend broadband to the boonies, but why not hasten the process with a national policy that recognizes the importance of universal service, and invests wisely to give everyone access to the Net at geek-pleasing speeds? Isn't it better to build connections to everywhere than to build bridges to nowhere?

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