Thursday, June 14, 2007

Rural areas want to dig out of the cyber dust

If you’re reading this story online from your farm or ranch, chances are you probably are accessing it from a dial-up connection.

A news release promoting Agristar Global Networks, Ltd. explained that the rural population has been left eating cyber dust while the rest of the country has raced ahead to 81 million households last year — a 75 percent increase since 2000.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released a report in December last year that showed the U.S. is the 12th most connected when measured by broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants, by technology.

The report found that America has 19.2 percent connected by broadband, and may be behind such places as Denmark, the Netherlands, Iceland, Korea, Switzerland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Canada, United Kingdom and Belgium … but hey, America beat Luxembourg by at least a couple spots.

The OECD added, “The United States has the largest total number of broadband subscribers in the OECD at 58.1 million. US broadband subscribers now represent 29% of all broadband connections in the OECD.”

According to the press release by Agristar a USDA survey in 2005 showed “only bout 15 percent of all farm operations had broadband capabilities.”

Statistics aside, rural Americans know from experience how little options they have, how expensive the options might be, and how frustrating it can be to wait for their modems to download what they want.

They also recognize that the world is racing ahead and becoming more dependent on the Web. Everything from weather forecasts to market prices to even taking part in government programs now depends heavily on the internet.

What so many of the urban population now takes for granted in the technology that allows city dwellers to do business, surf for pleasure or serve as an educational tool for families is more of a luxury if not an impossibility in some rural areas.

This is costing people in the rural areas opportunities to compete sometimes even with their peers when it comes to buying or selling products, adopting the latest technologies relevant to their businesses, or even developing or participating in a communication network that benefits what they do.

The Agristar press release had some interesting points. It mentioned that farmers and ranchers were among to first to embrace the new technology in the 1990s, but fell behind as broadband technology became so important to urban areas.

“Low population density, one of the greatest benefits of rural living, has severely limited access to the technology,” said the release, pointing out that broadband service comes in four options: DSL, cable modem, wireless towers and satellite.

The press release pointed out the limitations of some of the internet technology out there: towers that might not reach far enough into rural area, and too much expense to have broadband over power or telephone lines.

“Rural population densities are just too low to justify the investment by a private company because of the line upgrades that are required to deliver broadband,” it said.

This is why Agristar is ambitiously promoting itself to rural areas: it promised satellite connection installed within two weeks and a lot more speed than what farmers have now.

Fine, but for rural people counting their pennies, the technology needs to be affordable as well as available.

Hopefully internet providers will keep that in mind as they develop the rural frontier so everyone can be on a more even playing field and have equal opportunities in our changing technology world.

It would be a tragedy if the lack of available, affordable technology caused farms and ranchers to not just eat the dust of competitors, but to bite the dust as businesses.

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