First of all, my apologies for using the unattractive and ambiguous term "exurb" in the title above, but the term favored by social scientists appears in the headline of a Washington Post story on the difficulties of getting broadband in rural areas. It's important that rural and exurban America have access to competitve broadband, and it's a worthy issue for local officials to examine. There are right and wrong ways, to approach this however, as I'll discuss below.
Let me begin by admitting my own bias here. I grew up in what generally would be considered exurbs, developments outside of Phoenix. (We'd keep moving out into the desert, but our neighborhood would quickly be considered suburbs due to the Valley of the Sun's absurd growth.) I was born in Klamath Falls, Oregon, halfway to nowhere. I have aunts and cousins in Monroe, Oregon, other aunts and cousins in Midland, Texas, and even an aunt in the Canadian Rockies, miles from any sign of civilization.
One thing all of these places have in common is high unemployment. They tend to be dependent on a single industry (timber, farming, oil) and that creates vulnerabilities. My parents left Klamath Falls for the economic opportunities Phoenix brought, even if we could only afford to live on the outskirts. But my extended family on both sides like where they are and don't want to move. Not even my cousin Barb, a bright woman with an Oregon State education, who went unemployed in Monroe for over a year despite looking hard for work.
Broadband can free a community from reliance on employers, like a timber or oil company. People can work at home, for anyone located anywhere, or they can work for themselves. Broadband could in fact be a key to preserving some of these small towns, which urban dwellers may think of as a place to flee but that the residents think of as home.
But as the Post article points out and as PFF has written, it isn't cheap to get broadband to a place like Klamath Falls, a town east of the Cascades that isn't close to anything. People can criticize the big Bell and cable companies for moving slowly, but costs are higher for them there than in a large urban area, and in many small towns the large companies don't even have a presence.
The Post article interviews a Loudoun County official looking to get broadband into that community. He's begun by working with phone, cable and wireless companies to see what can be done to expand their footprints. That appears to me to be the right approach. Wrong approaches?
* Set up a government-run system. Our fellows have written articulately on the dangers of such an approach. Even a system by a third-party that involves backing by a municipality is financially risky, can deter competition and lock in residents to antiquated service.
* Turn to the federal government. An NRTC official is quoted in the story as saying federal subsidies are needed. Well, how well has that E-rate program worked out? How healthy is universal services? Bottom line is that Klamath Falls is different from Monroe is different from Midland. These problems should be addressed locally, not by Washington.
So what could these communities do?
Work with providers, just as Loudoun County is doing. Every situation will be different, but there are many things a wise city leader could do to help his or her constituents.
* Tax incentives for buildouts of state-of-the-art networks.
* Free access to rights-of-way such as lampposts for Wi-Fi or roads for fiber buildouts (requiring the companies to repair roads afterward, of course).
* Partnering with nonprofits to encourage computer distribution and assistance for low-income households.
* More e-government services to encourage Internet adoption.
Some might object to the first two bullets, saying they're handouts to big business. I would argue that (1) many of the recipients likely would be small businesses or cooperatives, (2) the economic benefits to the community presumably would more than offset the loss of some tax and ROW revenue, and (3) this differs from a municipal network in that it encourages competition among providers.
Cell phone penetration didn't occur in rural areas as quickly as urban, and it's still spotty. (After visiting family in Monroe last year I went hiking for two days in the Cascades, and never got a single bar on my cell phone.) But fortunately no city that I know of has decided to enter the wireless phone business. The only difference here is that building out broadband into rural areas is actually more expensive than putting in cell towers. That added expense doesn't mean it won't eventually happen. No potential customer in the U.S. will be forever overlooked. But if a local leader wants to speed up the process there are things that can be done to speed up the market, and that would benefit everyone in the community.