Stimulus Stirs Debate Over Rural Broadband Access President Obama's economic stimulus package includes $7.2 billion to expand broadband Internet access into rural areas. Advocates say high-speed access is necessary in a global economy. Critics say taxpayer dollars shouldn't be used for a "cyber bridge to nowhere."

Stimulus Stirs Debate Over Rural Broadband Access

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.


We've been looking at some of the details of the economic stimulus plan that the president signs this week. When you have a measure this big, even the details can be huge.

SHAPIRO: The amount for Native Americans is larger than the entire budget of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And we'll hear more about that money in a moment.

INSKEEP: We start with a plan to improve internet service. The bill includes $7 billion to expand broadband access in places where it's hard to get, especially rural areas. The debate over that money exposed an urban-rural divide, as NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES: If Congress and the president want the biggest bang for their seven billion bucks, they shouldn't spend it on rural broadband. That's what former FCC Chief Economist Michael Katz said last week at the American Enterprise Institute.

MICHAEL KATZ: Other people don't like to say bad things about rural areas, so I will.

BERKES: Katz dismisses rural life as environmentally hostile, energy inefficient and even weak in innovation because people live so spread out.

KATZ: The notion that we should be helping people who live in rural areas avoid the costs that they impose on society I actually think from an efficiency point of view and from an equity one is misguided.

BERKES: The week before, a New York Times reporter coined the phrase cyber bridge to nowhere.

DAVIS: When they talk about cyber bridges to nowhere, what they're really doing is portraying arrogance.

BERKES: Dee Davis is a rural issues advocate at the Center for Rural Strategies in Kentucky. When people think of rural as nowhere, Davis says, they're saying...

DAVIS: The people who live in those places aren't worth working with. They're not worth helping. And what we need to do is something that'll lift the economy in all places.

BERKES: Davis considers broadband critical to revival and survival of rural places for remote health care and education and for jobs. Take Ten Sleep, Wyoming, population 350. Three yeas ago, an entrepreneur visiting his in-laws noticed spools of orange fiber optic cable along freshly dug ditches in Ten Sleep. He called Chris Davidson, manager of the local phone company.

CHRIS DAVIDSON: And we discussed his idea for this business of teaching English via live video connection over to South Korean students. And it ended up that he headquartered his company right there in Ten Sleep.

BERKES: There's lots of anecdotal evidence like this, notes Shane Greenstein, a telecommunications economist at Northwestern University. But there's no definitive data showing bigger bandwidth means more jobs in rural places.

SHANE GREENSTEIN: We don't know if the exit of businesses from rural areas increases or decreases when you have broadband. We don't know whether you get growth. So though we see examples, we don't know whether those stories generalize.

BERKES: We also don't know how widespread broadband actually is. No one keeps track. But surveys conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project indicate 60 percent of the nation has broadband, but only about 40 percent of rural people are connected. And broadband tends to go to two kinds of rural places, according to a census survey of farmers.

BILL BISHOP: Broadband gets to places where there is either an economic need or an economic demand from people who have the money to buy it or businesses that absolutely have to have it.

BERKES: That's what Bill Bishop found when he analyzed the census survey. Bishop writes for the Daily Yonder, a rural news Web site. He noticed more broadband in counties with big farms and mountain and beachside enclaves that attract second homeowners and tourists. They had the demand and the resources, and they didn't need a $7 billion stimulus package to get broadband. So what about everywhere else?

BISHOP: Those places get served when society decides that it's a right to expand the service that most of us get without even question.

BERKES: Howard Berkes, NPR news.

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