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Challenges Accessing Broadband Service Highlight of Congressional Hearing

People who live in a city may take broadband Internet service for granted. But in many rural areas, broadband service is hard or even impossible to obtain.

The issue of broadband access was the spotlight of a recent congressional field hearing in Springfield.

As an employee for eGrain, which specializes in electronic documents for agribusiness, Drew Earles understands the importance of a good Internet connection. But he said that's not what he gets at his home in the central Illinois countryside, where he relies on a wireless transmitter mounted on the grain elevator in nearby Mechanicsburg.

"It'd be a little less than broadband," Earles said. "At times, it's comparable to dial-up, just depending on the traffic. If you catch it early in the morning, you can usually get some things done, and view some things."

Justin Green, who grows corn and soybeans near Arthur, has it a bit easier --- with a wireless connection to the DSL service at his parents' home. Green said people working in agriculture need reliable internet service as much as anyone else.

"A lot of our commodities markets and trading and access to information and communications with landowners and other businesses, a lot of that's done via email." Green said.

Earles and Green spoke at the booth they manned for the Illinois Agriculture Leadership Foundation, at the Illinois News Broadcasters Association convention in Springfield. But their comments could as easily have been made across town at the University of Illinois Springfield campus. There, Illinois Congressman Tim Johnson and other members of the House Subcommittee on Rural Development were hearing testimony on rural broadband service.

Among those testifying, Sue Campbell, the CEO for Community Memorial Hospital in Staunton. She worked with a local internet provider to obtain five megabytes of broadband service for her hospital, needed for everything from transmitting electronic medical records to supplementing their limited staff with doctors who consult from off site. But Campbell said her hospital will soon need a service upgrade.

"And it won't be too long before we're going to have to consider doubling our broadband width from five megs up to ten," Campbell said.

Rural American is well behind the country's urban areas when it comes to access to broadband Internet service. Les Fowler is with the McDonough Telephone Cooperative, which has managed to bring fiber-based broadband service to parts of western Illinois. But Fowler's co-op is not-for-profit. He told the subcommittee there's just not much money for the private sector to make in rural broadband.

"There's not going to be a huge opportunity for a lot of profit taking in those scenarios," Fowler said. "So I think it's going to take a jump start from the public sector to get this going."

In fact, Fowler said McDonough Telephone's broadband service wouldn't be possible without a Rural Utility Service loan funded by the federal Farm Bill, which is up for re-authorization. Fowler said the co-op is applying for its 2nd loan through the program, a process that has, so far, taken two years. Congressman Tim Johnson said bureaucratic problems have left much of the available money unspent.

"In some cases, only five percent of it has actually emerged from the application process to be used," Fowler said. "So upwards of 90 percent hasn't been. There's a limited amount of dollars to go around, and we need to make sure that rural America, small town America gets its share."

Johnson said efforts to reduce the federal deficit will mean less money for rural broadband service next year --- so he hopes his subcommittee can use the Farm Bill rule making process to make the loan program more efficient. The Urbana Republican said addressing the broadband shortage is just one way to reverse the population decline in rural America.

(AP Photo/Toby Talbot)