Residents in Rural Areas Struggle to Find Internet Providers

"They call it a grain elevator, we call it a communications tower"

Lush hills and cornfields along acres of land mark Carroll County as a haven for people who want to get away from the city life and compact suburban developments -- but finding reliable and affordable Internet can be a headache in rural areas.

The problem is that many people live away from cable lines which could provide broadband, said Bruce Hall, the owner of Freedom Wireless Broadband.

Comcast and Verizon can offer to build a line in order to provide broadband, but the cost to build the line to provide the service is astronomical, Hall said. The broadband company would likely never recoup the costs, he said.

"It costs whatever it does to build that network and [broadband providers are] not ever going to make it back in that monthly charge," Hall said.

It leaves a few options, Hall said. A wireless air card from AT&T or Verizon can be useful in a home without broadband, which is ideal for a light Internet user.

Heidi Sprinkle, who lives on a farm in Hampstead, is not a light Internet user.

The mother of three does design work on the computer and organizes Girl Scout events and communications for a lacrosse team. Her three daughters like to play games on the computer, and her family enjoys streaming Netflix.

"You just burn through it so quickly and any overage usage is phenomenally expensive," Sprinkle said of using a wireless air card. "It just didn't fit our lifestyle."

She didn't want dial-up, she said, although dial-up is available in every home because it uses telephone lines. And Sprinkle said she didn't want DirecTV or any company that tied its television access with Internet access, because she has three young daughters and prefers her daughters to watch public television and Netflix.

Because of the area Sprinkle lives in, her choices are limited, she said.

"We're in the middle of 300 acres. All my neighbors are four-legged," Sprinkle said with a laugh.

She signed up for Freedom Wireless Broadband, which serves rural areas in Carroll by creating a wireless hub at 35 different sites around the county. The network equipment sits on top of grain elevators and barns and windmills, Hall said. The hub can connect a network of people, instead of simply serving one customer.

"They call it a grain elevator, we call it a communications tower," Hall said.

Freedom Wireless Broadband services areas of Md. 26, Sullivan Valley, Gamber, Deer Park, Manchester, Hampstead, Lineboro, Finksburg, Mount Airy and areas of Frederick County. The sites link back together and into Eldersburg where the service comes from, Hall said. Eldersburg has a connection to Baltimore, where broadband flows into the county, Hall said.

In late 2011, the Federal Communications Commission began the Connect America Fund, a national program to modernize its subsidy program for rural telephone service and enable it to expand broadband access in rural areas. The Connect America Fund helps subsidize broadband or phone service in rural areas where providing service can be costly for companies.

Areas aren't categorized rural just because there is a farm in the backyard, though. It depends on whether the local phone company -- which is Verizon, in the case of Carroll County -- is known as a rural local exchange carrier, according to Mark Wigfield, spokesman for the FCC.

A cost model will calculate the appropriate subsidy down to the census block level, for the cost of providing phone and broadband to a local area. Verizon would then accept the subsidy or decline it.

However, the company must accept or decline the subsidies on a statewide basis, even though the subsidies may vary region to region, Wigfield wrote in an email. If the company declines the rural subsidies, other companies could bid to provide the service by using the subsidies offered, Wigfield wrote. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration began a state broadband initiative to improve information about broadband access. The NTIA and FCC now collect data down to the neighborhood about who has access to broadband and which companies provide it and curate the data on a website called the National Broadband Map.

In Carroll County, 88 percent of the county has access to DSL, through a provider like Verizon, and 91.5 percent of the population has access to cable Internet, such as Comcast, according to the National Broadband Map.

The county actually outpaces the nation on cable access, where 87.6 percent of the U.S. has access to cable, but is left behind when it comes to fiber.

Fiber offers the fastest download speeds for Internet usage. Nationwide, fiber optic broadband is available to 20.5 percent of the population. Only 0.5 percent of the population in Carroll has access to fiber, according to the map. Freedom Wireless Broadband would need 240 network sites in order to cover the entire county, Hall said.

Freedom Wireless Broadband does not have access to very specific maps of where Comcast and Verizon are, Hall said, so the company mostly finds out about areas that are lacking through potential customers.

"The customers call us," Hall said.

There are a few options a rural residence has for high-speed Internet: a wireless air card which plugs into a computer, satellite Internet or Freedom Wireless Broadband. For rural residents who live closer to a municipality, working with a retail Internet provider like Quantum Internet Services is also a possibility.

Quantum, or QIS, provides Internet services by piggybacking on the central offices Verizon uses to provide DSL, said Chief Executive Officer Kevin Brown.

Verizon can extend a little less than three and a half miles from its central office to provide DSL, Brown said. Quantum can extend almost to four miles from the central office source, he said.

The farther a person is away from a central office, the less reliable the DSL gets, explained Mike Shelah, a former Quantum employee and senior account executive at Earthlink. "Instead of having 10 houses on your street, you have 10 houses in your neighborhood. They tend to be too far away from the central office for DSL," Shelah said.

So while the options exist, most end up with one solution that works for both their bottom line and service area.

"Freedom (Wireless Broadband) is the choice of people who don't have a better choice," Hall said.

According to a release from the FCC, the Connect America Fund just completed a comment period for the appropriate cost model of updating rural access on Feb. 15. In August Verizon and AT&T rejected the initial offerings from the FCC for the Connect America Fund. In Verizon's 2011 annual report, the company wrote of providing rural Internet access through wireless air card services.

The current model for determining the cost of developing the infrastructure is ongoing, according to the release from the FCC.

With Internet service providers working with the federal government on ways to appropriately solve rural America's Internet access woes, Carroll residents without access to broadband will be stuck waiting.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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