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The domestic digital divide

We've heard a lot recently about how poor our broadband penetration is in this country. It's true, in fact, that too great a percentage of our students simply don't have access to high-speed internet at home like their European and Asian counterparts.
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We've heard a lot recently about how poor our broadband penetration is in this country. It's true, in fact, that too great a percentage of our students simply don't have access to high-speed internet at home like their European and Asian counterparts. What we all too often overlook is the difficulty of servicing folks in, say North Dakota.

Business Week featured an interesting article on Hughes Satellite Internet ("Boondocks Broadband"). Hughes is the largest provider of satellite internet service in the country; satellite is basically the only option for huge swaths of rural and extra-urban areas of the United States. As the article notes,

While most urban and suburban U.S. households have access to cable modem service from a cable TV company or DSL from a phone carrier—or both—the majority of residents of rural areas have neither. According to a July study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, only 38% of rural American households have access to high-speed Internet connections, compared with 60% for suburban dwellers.

Even the 60% is, quite frankly, too low, but when your only option for broadband is slower, more expensive, and more restrictive in terms of data allowances, you have a problem (that, by the way, leaves a lot of people in this country with a problem that is very difficult to solve given the geographic distribution of the US).

So what do we do? Roll out WiMax at high cost for extremely low return in sparsely populated areas?

Rural schools can often bear the cost of satellite or even T1 lines if they integrate voice communications. However, this doesn't help us as we look at ways to provide kids with access to school and web-based resources at home. In 2008, a computer without an internet connection is a glorified typewriter.

So where do we go from here? Should schools provide VPN access optimized for dial-up speeds? Is satellite actually the best option and, if so, how can we make it cost-effective? New satellites that can improve access and availability cost on the order of $400 million; government subsidies for this sort of thing are hard to come by as we're bailing out Wall Street and Detroit and fighting a couple of wars.

Folks in rural areas, talk back below and let us know what you're doing.

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