For many years, the term digital divide has been used to describe the gulf between high- and low-income Americans’ ability and willingness to subscribe to high-speed broadband services like DSL and cable modem.

These days, the price of broadband service has dropped to the point that just about anyone can afford the service (I pay $24.95 per month), and just about every library and school has high-speed Internet access, extending access to nearly everyone… in the cities. Rural Americans seem to be stuck in the ’90s, as the increasing demands of Wall Street squeeze telecoms, reducing their willingness to invest in infrastructure that will serve low density population centers.

ISPs to rural America: Live with dial-up (ComputerWorld)

For example, in Minnesota, broadband penetration is just over 39% in rural areas, while in the Twin Cities area — where infrastructure has been built out — that number is 57%. The Chinese government has a program in place aimed at reducing the divide between rural and urban populations, and Indian telecom Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. sells high-end services to corporations, using the profits to extend connectivity to poor and rural areas. Even though U.S. broadband penetration is close to 60%, the United States is now behind 15 countries, including Iceland, Canada, and Korea.

The U.S. Congress has had several initiatives to try to address the divide, but none has yet made a big impact on rural customers. With the telecoms under mounting pressure from Wall Street to provide high returns on their equity, the big companies are, at best, dragging their feet when it comes to laying down the infrastructure to support broadband in rural areas. The government, in my opinion, has an obligation to provide either regulation or incentives to convince the telecoms to extend their services, just as they were forced to extend telephone service and just as the electric companies were forced to provide power to all areas.

Do you think that the telecoms should build out their infrastructures on their own, or should government regulations and incentives be imposed? Do you believe that broadband, like telephone and electric service, should be a utility that extends even to rural areas? How would you make it happen if you were in charge?


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