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Rural Internet: a work in progress

Chris Clampitt and his family do a lot of living online.
As with many families in America, it’s where life happens. His kids rely on it to get a lot of learning done. For work or for play, it’s a communication tool for the whole family.
Chris, a Missouri Farm Bureau Agent based in Richmond, is one of the many rural businessmen for whom, as American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman said, “Broadband Internet access is a necessity, not a luxury.”
Yet for the Clampitt family and others in rural areas, how to go about getting that high-speed access can become a hit-or-miss proposition.
Clampitt’s family became customers of Hughesnet, the satellite Internet service provider of the national Hughes Network Systems telecommunications family based in Germantown, Md. Clampitt looked into other options for the subdivision his family calls home, The Oaks, isn’t landline-broadband accessible; and Clampitt was perplexed at the limits on T-Mobile’s wireless network. He doesn’t want for wireless phone service, but can’t yet access T-Mobile’s G3 Wireless network. A T-Mobile representative confirmed the G3 network is not yet available to Richmond customers but could not provide an explanation.
“The way (people) live now, every second, somebody wants something and they want it yesterday,” Clampitt said.
And so it was that the Clampitt family joined the 70-percent client base in what Hughes Channel Marketing Vice President Mark Wymer calls America’s “rural footprint.” It’s a niche Wymer said Hughes can fill because they can provide service “anywhere with a clear view of the Southern sky” without the physical limitations of landlines, and metropolitan Internet service shoppers can typically find easy, lower-priced landline broadband instead of using satellite service.
“(Customers) are seeing levels of improved productivity, because they’re not having to wait until the end of the day to patch and download their transactions,” Wymer said. “There’s definitely improvements of those business and households that are adopting the high-speed lifestyle.”
That isn’t to always say an area will be exclusively satellite accessible or devoted to broadband. Columbia, Mo.-based Socket.net Director of Carrier and Government Relation Matt Kohly estimates 90 percent of his customer base lies outside the two biggest Missouri metro areas, St. Louis and Kansas City. But even in the country, there are areas where a house at one end of a street is landline accessible because it happens to be within the 17,000 to 22,000 foot limit over which data can travel over copper cable.
On the other hand, the house at the other end of the block might be barely out of reach and left with a satellite access-or-no-access option, Kohly said.
“There may be certain areas where you get out into the rural edges of the Richmond exchange or further out into the country where satellite’s not the only option, but it’s the only cost effective option,” he explained.
The solutions are out there – and none of them perfect. Satellite internet might be more broadly accessible without the geographic and physical limitations of landlines, but Kohly pointed out even that service isn’t without its own drawbacks. It also can carry higher price points than landline broadband and, as he pointed out, “There are only so many satellites in the sky at one time.
“Once you get into rural areas, you’ve got physical limitations on how far a signal will go,” Kohly said. “To overcome it takes more and more money.”
Just the same, State Senator Bill Stouffer, a Richmond resident and former two-year satellite customer who said the service can be non-existent on a cloudy enough day, said the answers seem to lie in sweetening the pot for larger companies like AT&T by reducing the access costs they pay to smaller local providers, who Stouffer said tend to pump that revenue back into local landline infrastructure.
It’s a compromise the Missouri General Assembly tried to navigate over the most recent legislative session without much headway.
“The larger companies argue that if they could reduce their access fees to small companies, they could build out,” Stouffer said. “The truth of the matter is, that’s probably not going to happen, because they’re going to put their money where it’s more effective and so then you’re actually taking money away from those small companies that reduce those access fees.”
Nevertheless, Stouffer said, it could become crucial convincing larger carriers to tap into rural Missouri’s untapped potential markets.
“We still need to stress the importance to the AT&Ts of the world that it’s extremely important to access rural Missouri,” Stouffer said.
On the flip side, there’s no guarantee larger carriers won’t pump their savings into more lucrative metropolitan customer bases instead of helping rural customers.
“Those are areas where we’re constantly looking for ways to provide broadband to those markets. You’ve got customers that want the service, you usually have fewer competitors,” Kohly said. “So it’s smart to look for a cost effective way to get there, that would be our focus.”
Along the same lines, Kohly said an ideal solution would be low-interest, long-term financing incentives to developing rural Internet access. But even he admits that might not be realistic right now.
“Certainly you’ve got the issue of getting the internet to the customer,” Kohly said. “But also when you get into rural areas you’ve got the issue of getting the internet from one location where you can get on the Internet backbone to getting it to your facility to distribute it to your customers.”
There’s a mass communication theory that predicts the next societal class war won’t be over wealth but information – who has access to the technology to retrieve it, and who doesn’t. One way or another, it appears to be a theory all of these stakeholders want to work to avoid.
To a pragmatic end, Kohly said Socket emphasizes providing rural access because of the market potential. Wymer would say the same of Hughes.
Clampitt doesn’t see the higher price tags he and his neighbors must accept as anybody’s fault or an easy situation to fix. In fact, he understands both sides’ interests perfectly fine. That doesn’t mean, even with public Wi-Fi Internet on the increase and increasing public Internet access points, it isn’t still frustrating sometimes to know that his satellite Internet’s slower upload time makes such revolutionary advances as online college courses harder to utilize.
“Can’t help but feel penalized for where we live and so forth,” Clampitt said. “It is what it is.”

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