Nearly a third of Americans lack a broadband Internet connection. On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission will officially release a plan to help change that. But any plan to connect the nation is going to have to take on a very complex and expensive set of problems.
Sarah Supahan, superintendent of Burnt Ranch Elementary School, says the school paid almost $50,000 for a satellite link — and it doesn't work well.
Sarah Supahan, superintendent of Burnt Ranch Elementary School, says the school paid almost $50,000 for a satellite link — and it doesn't work well. Laura Sydell/NPR
Trinity County is a strikingly beautiful part of Northern California — tall pine-covered mountains, clear lakes, and rivers filled with salmon and trout. But only around 14,000 people live there, and they don't have an easy time getting an Internet connection.
Impact On Education
Burnt Ranch Elementary School is right in the middle of the county. School Superintendent Sarah Supahan says the school paid almost $50,000 for a satellite link — and it doesn't work well. On top of that, the 95-student school can afford only 20 computers.
"Our kids are really missing out on that kind of experience that other kids just take for granted now," Supahan says. "There are schools where kids have a laptop and that's becoming a lot more common, and we're just glad to have enough laptops for a small group of kids to work."
For most Americans, dial-up is a distant memory. But almost all the kids at Burnt Ranch still have to use a phone line to connect to the Internet.
"It's kind of slow," says 11-year-old Sylvan Brandar as his sister hooks up a phone cord to her laptop.
So it's not easy to do schoolwork online, says 13-year-old Faith Robb.
"It takes about an hour to load every page," she says.
Her teacher, Kristy Kilgore, says there are some assignments the kids can't do from home.
"If they have high speed at home, they can actually reach their math book and all of the interactive lessons from home," Kilgore says. "They have a password that they can use, but it doesn't work with dial-up."
A Possible Answer Nearby
It's especially frustrating since there might be a way to connect the area. About 40 miles down the road, near the county seat of Weaverville, Dero Forslund, the county's chief executive, stands near a post that marks the AT&T fiber that runs north and south through the county.
Forslund says AT&T got a right of way to put its fiber into the ground there to connect major cities to the north and south. But he says the company isn't interested in connecting his county.
"AT&T has declined our offers to utilize that in the past, and it's here and it's using our rights of way, which we get no benefit for," Forslund says.
A local company, New Day Broadband, says it approached AT&T about paying to tap into its line to connect Trinity County, but New Day says AT&T turned down the proposal.
In an e-mail response, AT&T told NPR that the fiber that runs through Trinity is "not engineered for local feeds."
That claim baffles Andrew Afflerbach, the director of engineering at Columbia Telecommunications Corp. Columbia consults with rural communities around the U.S. to help bring them broadband access. He says a local provider should be able to tap into the fiber and build out into the community.
"The two potential technical arguments — one is that the cable's all used up and another that you can't touch it — those are essentially technically not valid," he says. "Whatever reason that exists, it's not a technical reason."
Dero Forslund (right), Trinity County's chief executive, and Connie Stewart, executive director of the California Center for Rural Policy, stand near a marker showing where AT&T fiber runs underground.
Dero Forslund (right), Trinity County's chief executive, and Connie Stewart, executive director of the California Center for Rural Policy, stand near a marker showing where AT&T fiber runs underground. Laura Sydell/NPR
Building In Rural Communities
And it's not limited to Trinity County or AT&T, says Matt Polka, the president of the American Cable Association, which represents small cable providers around the country.
"Larger companies are interested in controlling their marketplaces, and they're not interested in encouraging competition," he says.
Polka says the major telecoms and cable providers have no financial incentive to build broadband into rural counties. "Their businesses are oftentimes focused on more urban densely populated areas, and frankly they just don't put the time or the resources into smaller markets and consequently those markets get left behind," Polka says.
Many analysts believe the only way to get broadband access to everyone in this country is for the Federal Communications Commission to help finance a build-out. Forslund looks back to the New Deal rural electrification project.
"They basically came in with federal funds to extend power out to the rest of the county, but without that kind of federal help in those days we would probably still have a lot of places that didn't have electricity," Forslund says.
For now, the FCC's national broadband plan recommends tapping into the Universal Service Fund, which currently subsidizes phone service to rural and low-income areas. But the commission will not try to require big telecommunications companies to open up access to their existing lines. Susan Crawford, who teaches law at the University of Michigan, was part of Obama's FCC transition team.
"With heat, water, gas and electric there was always a tradition of the state being involved and a great deal of state intervention," Crawford says. "We don't have that tradition with telecommunications in this country. Most other countries do."
A Long Wait
Right now, the United States is No.15 among industrialized nations in terms of access to broadband, and even using the Universal Service Fund won't get broadband to many rural areas for a decade. For Trinity County, that's a long time to wait: The current class at Burnt Ranch Elementary will be out of college, and Trinity is losing jobs, says Forslund
"With the loss of the timber industry and the kind of slowdown of tourism, I mean that's where we're at with the economy right now," he says. "A broadband environment up here, I think would kind of be the kind of thing that will basically secure our economic future. And without it, it becomes really a question of whether a county like this can actually survive."
The FCC says its national broadband plan is not final. It expects input from Congress and the public. Community leaders like Forslund will have a lot to say.