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Many US Rural Areas Still Lack High-Speed Internet Access

The race to get the nation hooked up with high-speed access to the Internet has, inevitably, left some Americans in the dust. The FCC, the U.S. agency that regulates America's electronic media, recently ranked South and North Dakota, two thinly populated states in the northern plains, dead last in the nation in the number of homes enjoying high-speed, or broadband, Internet access. The government survey showed only half the Dakotas' communities have access to at least one high-speed provider, compared with an average of 80 percent of communities with service in most other states.

Within the Dakotas, the strongest broadband services are clustered in the states' few metropolitan areas, such as Sioux Falls and Rapid City. But most people living in the state's largely rural communities must be content with using their old telephone modems to access the Internet or send e-mail, at speeds many times slower than offered by the more advanced subscriber line and cable-based services.

As reporter Brian Bull tells us, the Dakotas' Internet blues might be getting a fix, but as always, it's likely to involve some waiting.

Inside his basement study, Jesse Ronning of Vermillion dials up to connect his computer with the Internet. Mr. Ronning is a recent graduate of the University of South Dakota's law program, who's studying for his bar exam. He uses the Internet for research and e-mail for $10 a month. Mr. Ronning moves the mouse with one arm, and holds his 13-month-old son Noah in the other:

"He actually loves to pound on the keyboard, so this is our second keyboard," he said. "The last time he spilled something on it too, so we don't let him pound on it a whole lot anymore."

Mr. Ronning says getting a new keyboard is easy but it's tougher finding a faster Internet connection in the area.

"I'm connected at 53.2 and that's quite average, actually. Occasionally, it'll be connected at 56, but usually it's 53.2 kilobits per second," he points out.

Kilobits per second is the unit of measurement used in data transfer, and as one might guess, the higher the number, the faster the information streams in. A person with a modem that can transmit data from a phone line at speeds below 56-kilobits per second, or 56K, might easily spend half a day downloading a scanned-in photograph, while someone else with a digital subscriber line, or DSL, can open up the picture file instantly. The DSL's transfer rate can be eight to twelve times faster than a 56K modem.

Mr. Ronning says he hasn't found a faster service in this university town of 10,000 people. For now, he says, his 56K modem works fine, and it's still faster than many other residents' systems - residents like Marilyn Rohrer. She works for the University of South Dakota's Human Resources Department in Vermillion, but lives about thirty miles north of Mr. Ronning in the quiet, rural community of Wakonda, population 374. Every day, Mrs. Rohrer crosses the digital divide: in her office, e-mails and documents come and go with the click of a mouse, thanks to the University's very fast T-1 connection to the Internet. But at home, where her dial-up service can manage only 32-kilobits per second, those same processes stagger and hang, and often time out.

"I got a nice new camera from the kids for Christmas. And I got these new grandbabies and wanted to e-mail people, but you know, you sit and wait to get into a file and send it and then you get a message back the next day, 'well, it didn't go' or […] something,' it's just really frustrating".

State communications officials know the problem goes beyond e-mailing family snapshots. Distance learning, commerce, and business operations are just a few of the activities that are stymied by the lack of high-speed Internet connections.

Kent Osborne, who designs and manages web sites for South Dakota's Bureau of Information and Telecommunications, says that the state's vast expanse and scattered population mean an Internet service provider would have to spend thousands, if not millions of dollars, trying to connect every single user wanting broadband.

"You're not going to find a company that's willing to put out that kind of money to connect all those last houses in the circuit or whatever," he said.

Mr. Osborne suggests that state officials could regard Internet access as a utility, just like power and water. This would allow constant funding and upgrading of services. That idea has won the backing of some powerful elected officials, including the state's U.S. Senator, Democrat Tom Daschle.

"I agree, I think that universal service ought to include electricity, ought to include telephone, and now it ought to include broadband. We've got to have that access in order for us to be competitive and to insure that there really is a death to distance," he said. "Distance shouldn't matter anymore in commerce on the Internet. The only way that we can insure that distance doesn't matter, is to insure that we have the routine access to broadband like everybody else."

And some communications specialists point out that new technologies are being developed that would do away with the costly and labor-intensive process of laying cable.

"The pace of technology development will allow us to realistically continue to expand that throughout the state and we look for a target of anywhere from five years to ten years where the entire state would be covered by a wireless technology capable of delivering data signals much faster than today's technology can do via land line," said Craig Anderson, the CEO of Prairie Wave Communications, based in Sioux Falls.

Mr. Anderson says his company specializes in rural townships like Wakonda, Irene, Viborg, and Flandreau, and can provide broadband services that rival city areas. But Mr. Anderson adds most service is limited to city limits, and users in farm areas are best advised to wait for wireless. And users who want broadband can pay between fifteen to forty dollars more per month for the enhanced service.

Jesse Ronning says he might be willing to pay that extra amount. Back in his basement study, with his son Noah resting against his shoulder, he logs off his computer.

"It'd be worth it to me 'cause I spend probably two hours a day, because I'm in fantasy football and fantasy baseball leagues and stuff. And it takes a long time to update all the leagues and to check my e-mail, and to correspond and all that stuff, not to mention the dial-up time, as well as disconnecting," he said. "If I could do that with less time, that'd be more beneficial so I think it'd be worth the extra money you pay."

Then again, Mr. Ronning adds prices do come down as the technology advances. And that may be another reason to keep waiting.