Broadband Country Roads
Co-ops are helping bridge the digital divide
by Ty Poppenhouse
Josh Shallenberger, Shelby Electric Cooperative’s Chief Operating Officer and Marla Berner, Shelby DirecTV Customer Service Manager visit a Clear Talk Tower near Tower Hill they are utilizing as a Gateway for <pwr-net.coop>. The cooperative is utilizing exisiting tower structures and grain legs in addition to building new towers for their wireless internet build out.
It took 54 years for electricity to spark its way from Thomas Edison’s first power plant in New York in 1882 to the cornfields of Illinois in 1936. That spark of electricity called rural electrification, and some still call the REA, lit a fire under the development of rural areas of America. Today many believe the next greatest thing will be rural broadband deployment. They just hope it won’t take 54 years to develop.
Developing a new broadband infrastructure in rural Illinois has the same major hurdle that rural electrification faced more than 70 years ago—low population density. There is very little profit to be made serving rural areas. This is creating what many are referring to as the digital divide.
The good news is this gap is slowly beginning to close. Entrepreneurs, electric cooperatives and telecommunications cooperatives are filling in some of the gaps where larger broadband providers still don’t see a high enough profit margin.
Providing affordable broadband coverage in rural areas is no easy task. Look out across the cornfields of Illinois and you’ll see the problem—one house here and maybe another a mile away. Within an urban environment a little investment goes a long way and has a large profit return. Investors and large companies are naturally going to serve high-density areas first.
This dilemma has led cooperatives, local entrepreneurs, government and regional collaborative organizations to step in and take the initiative to develop rural broadband. Without rural broadband many believe rural areas will simply not be able to survive economically.
High-speed broadband has become a connection standard, replacing dial-up nationwide (where available), and a staple for online entertainment and business. Upgrading to high-speed Internet allows faster upload and download times, maintains constant connectivity and doesn’t tie up your phone lines.
The Federal Communications Commission defines “broadband” as Internet service with a speed of at least 200 kilobits per second (Kbps), in one direction (download or upload speed). In today’s world of video conferencing, iTunes music, eBay marketing and YouTube video, many are arguing that 200 Kbps is already too slow. Those that have experienced broadband speed would call dial-up speeds at 56 Kbps “excruciatingly slow.” Countries like South Korea, where 90 percent of the population has access to 20 megabits per second, are moving ahead of us at light speed. Even in U.S. broadband service areas you would be lucky to receive 4 megabits per second service.
The options for high-speed Internet include Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), Cable, wireless, satellite, fiber optic line and even the power lines that deliver electricity.
Electric cooperatives in some areas are offering broadband Internet, but vary on type and speed. For example, Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative in Winchester offers wireless and satellite, while Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative offers wireless and fiber optic broadband through their subsidiary, Conxxus. At this time the fiber optic service is only available and financially feasible in the co-op’s headquarters town of Paxton. For many rural areas not served by DSL or cable, wireless service seems to be the most likely option for someone to provide.
Sean Middleton, Engineering Manager for Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative (left) explains the fixed-wireless broadband system to Illinois Country Living magazine editor John Lowrey. Wireless broadband requires a clear line of sight between the home-based receiver (pictured) and the base station. The installation charge is $125. In addition to providing data communication between the co-op’s substations, the broadband system serves most of Adams, Brown, Calhoun, Cass, Greene, Jersey, Macoupin, Morgan, Pike and Scott counties. A clear line of sight between antennas is required.
But even with wireless there are sometimes issues to overcome, such as interference and line-of-sight problems. Residents within Illinois Rural Electric’s territory who wish to purchase through the co-op need direct line of sight for wireless broadband service. If you have too many trees in the way or live in a valley area you may not be able to get the service.
Sean Middleton, Engineering Manager at Illinois Rural Electric, says that “line of sight is critical...[wireless] will shoot through a few trees, but not a lot.”
Line of sight is also needed with satellite broadband, but to a lesser extent.
WildBlue, a popular satellite broadband provider throughout the U.S., is accessible virtually anywhere as long as you have an unobstructed view of the southern sky. However, WildBlue has a history of suspending installations in the past when their satellite capacity becomes full for certain areas. They haven’t been able to keep up with demand, and potential customers who can only use satellite have been forced to wait until openings become available.
Even with the setbacks and higher cost, satellite is still growing strong because of the demand in rural areas. According to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), there were fewer than 50,000 satellite subscribers in 2004 and by the end of 2006 that number had grown to 700,000.
Norris Electric Cooperative in Newton is one of the Illinois electric co-ops providing WildBlue broadband service. Tim Bonhoff, Member Service Coordinator says, “We have about 700 WildBlue customers. At least 20 of those that I can think of are businesses that needed broadband service and couldn’t get it any other way.”
Bonhoff feels more people in general are moving to rural areas in part because they can get broadband service.
Broadband access is essential in convincing new businesses to open shop in rural areas. Lack of broadband can be a deal breaker for new businesses interested in rural areas. Broadband access unlocks the world to rural businesses. With broadband service you can work from anywhere and reach customers anywhere. Without it local businesses are unable to grow and compete.
For some co-op members having broadband access means they can work from home most of the time and avoid the high cost of commuting to their job every day. With the ever rising cost of gas, working from home options are becoming increasingly attractive to employers and employees.
“Without access to affordable broadband, it will be harder to attract new businesses over the next 10-20 years and employment will shift to areas that do have access,” says David Loomis, an Associate Professor of Economics at Illinois State University.
If you question the value of broadband access simply ask the teenagers you know if they would move to a community without broadband service when they finish school? Now imagine your community without any young families 15 years from now.
Many states and rural communities have begun taking action. Kentucky, for example, is often pointed out as a leader for rural broadband deployment.
A recent report from Connected Nation, a national non-profit group, says that by adopting a similarly structured plan to Kentucky, the U.S. overall can expect:
Kentucky's broadband availability soared from 60 percent in 2004 to 95 percent by December 2007. The increase in availability is a result of ConnectKentucky, a broadband initiative that brings public and private sectors together to develop the availability and adoption of broadband statewide.
Illinois residents have developed similar initiatives and gained the attention of Illinois government. Governor Blagojevich's staff has stepped in, creating the Broadband Deployment Council to focus on statewide broadband services.
Under the Rural Affairs Council led by Lt. Governor Pat Quinn, the Broadband Deployment Council works “To position Illinois as America's leading broadband technology state and to improve the cost and speed of high-speed network services,” says Policy Advisor to the Lt. Governor Ryan Croke.
“We advocate for affordable, world-class communication networks in every corner of Illinois,” says Croke. “Not just for individual citizens, but for businesses, schools, hospitals, libraries and other organizations as well.”
ConnectSI is another initiative based out of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. ConnectSI works to encourage broadband deployment primarily for the southern 20 counties of Illinois. Working with the Broadband Deployment Council, ConnectSI is led by prominent leaders in southern Illinois, from Southern Illinois University, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Egyptian Electric Cooperative Association among others.
Finding broadband service providers in a rural area can be tough. You can go to www.DSLreports.com and find local high-speed services by your zip code. The Web site offers estimated prices, connection speed, reviews by local customers and will link you to the offering company’s Web site.
You should also check out Lt. Governor Quinn’s broadband site at http://illinoisbroadbanddeployment.pbwiki.com and click on Broadband Projects in Illinois. There you will find information about planned and existing local, regional and statewide broadband projects.
You can also call your electric and telephone cooperatives if you’re searching for broadband by phone. If your cooperative isn’t an Internet service provider, ask if they know of any resources for broadband Internet in your area. Wayne-White Counties Electric Cooperative in Fairfield doesn’t offer high-speed Internet, but they have researched 10 major providers of broadband in their territory and have posted the information on the co-op’s Web site. Next, try your local cable or phone company.
Shelby Electric Cooperative is the latest electric cooperative to begin construction of a wireless broadband service. The co-op began installing equipment on towers in this spring. They also be using grain elevators
to support the new rural broadband infrastructure.
The Shelbyville co-op was one of the first to provide WildBlue service, but WildBlue limited the co-op’s satellite subscriptions to 300, forcing them to take the initiative to build from scratch. Shelby Electric’s system will be similar to the one built by Illinois Rural Electric, hosting a mesh-based, (is this WiFi or WiMax) wireless network requiring line-of-sight technology.
Kevin Bernson, Vice President of Media and Public Relations, says, “We will service our entire territory and outside of it. We’ll be servicing any area we feel there is enough of a market to serve, but we will start off building around our service territory to cover our membership and non-members.”
Broadband Internet coverage means more than simply “catching up” rural America with bigger cities. It also brings advancement opportunities for the individual and the community.
High-speed broadband allows hospitals to invest in telemedicine that can offer specialist services not available in low-density regions of
Illinois. Sending the data, such as high resolution X-rays, immediately improves rural health care and lowers the cost.
Broadband isn’t absolutely necessary for online distance learning, but it does help the Web savvy student get the best of what’s offered online. There are many accredited colleges that offer educational programs via the Internet.
You don’t have to be seeking a college degree, either.
Several Illinois colleges offer online programs for general education development (GED) and technical courses. All GED programs are free for residents in Illinois, as well. Visit www.GED-I.org for more information.
Online students can benefit from having broadband by participating in real time conversations with students across the world.
LaDonna Houston, a member of Adams Electric Cooperative in Camp Point, finished college online at the University of Phoenix. Learning from her home, LaDonna was able to complete her bachelor’s degree in information systems technology. She now works two days from home and the rest at DOT Foods in Mt. Sterling.
According to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, rural broadband adoption has risen from 5.6 percent of rural households in September 2001 to 38.8 percent in October 2007. As high-speed broadband continues to become available, the quality of life in rural areas is guaranteed to improve.
“Seventy years ago co-ops made electric service possible in rural areas when many said it just wouldn’t work, it wasn’t profitable,” says John Lowrey, editor of Illinois Country Living and a member of the Illinois Broadband Deployment Council Infrastructure Subcommittee. “Today we can’t imagine life without electricity. I think in a few short years we won’t be able to imagine life without broadband service. It will make things we haven’t even dreamed of possible.”
Lowrey says the financial risk for rural broadband service providers is high, but he adds the future prosperity of rural areas requires the investment.
He says, “Electricity is power. Broadband is power too. It’s information power. We are, after all, living in the information age. When you can work from anywhere and go to school from anywhere, I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t rather live in a rural community. Rural broadband service will make that possible and so much more. We shouldn’t settle for less.”
For more information on broadband:
© 2008 Illinois Country Living Magazine.