Two different approaches to bridging the digital divide

In the U.S. the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program is accused of waste while in the U.K. the grassroots B4RN community broadband network is a success. Is either approach the ultimate solution to bringing high-speed Internet access to rural areas?

rural_fiber-600x450_0.jpgImage credit: REUTERS/Brian Snyder
In Vermont, they're using horses to pull fiber optic cable through difficult terrain

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the digital divide in the United States and how the lack of high speed Internet access was hurting, in particular, students in low income households and rural areas. I also wrote about a hypothetical (some say apocryphal) solution to the problem which would involve the FCC reclaiming some of the spectrum currently used by TV stations and repurposing it for powerful, free WiFi networks. In the last week there were a couple of news items about additional efforts to bridge the digital divide, both in the U.S. and abroad, with different degrees of success.

Stateside, the New York Times reported last week on the Obama administration’s $4 billion Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). This program, part of the administration’s 2009 stimulus package, is meant to get broadband access to rural communities and the 40 percent of rural households that currently can’t get it. The latest quarterly BTOP status report to Congress, submitted in December 2012, says that the 233 grants from the program have, so far, led to:

  • 78,000 new or upgraded broadband network miles

  • 38,600 new workstations in public computer centers

  • 510,000 households and 12,000 businesses signing up for broadband access

According to the Times, though, the program has been plagued with - are you sitting down for this? - inefficiencies, waste and, possibly, corruption. Fiber optic cables have reportedly been laid in communities that already have it, or to neighborhoods where the project engineers live, while many hard-to-access communities are still doing without broadband. To date $594 million of that $4 billion in grant money has been put on hold while investigations are underway by the Commerce Department and Congress is now planning to hold hearings about the whole program. 

Across the pond, the BBC reported last week on a rural community in Lancashire that got tired of waiting for broadband access to arrive and are making it happen on their own. They raised half a million pounds from community members to build their own fiber optic infrastructure, called the the B4RN community broadband network. Using those funds, as well as volunteers’ time and the cooperation of local landowners, they’ve been able to build a network offering 500 Mbps download speeds to households for £30 per month. 

Are either of these (very different) approaches the key to bridging the digital divide? While the efforts of the people of Lancashire are laudable (and very impressive), and could be replicated in some places, I don’t see that as a blueprint for most communities. It’s required a lot of time (and money) from locals, and, most importantly, the free use of private land in which to dig the trenches and lay the cables. That just simply won’t be an option in many communities, I’m guessing.

The government-run approach to providing broadband to rural areas, I think, still has the better chance of large scale success. Yes, as with any government undertaking, there are inefficiencies and waste, that our representatives should work hard to identify and eliminate. But, the reason that the government is stepping in in the first place is because private industry has failed to fill in the gaps. If you accept that high speed Internet access is now vital to the educational and economic success of everyone, a point which is debatable but which I agree with, then programs like BTOP should continue to be funded.

What say you? Is this just the government wasting money again? Can the success of the B4RN network be replicated in other communities? Weigh in with your thoughts in the comments.

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