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Toto, we're still in Kansas: Broadband Seeds Rural Routes

Dick Veach doesn't mind that the biggest city served by his telecom company is Ulysses, Kan., a town that a grand total of 6,500 people call home.

Dick Veach doesn't mind that the biggest city served by his telecom company is Ulysses, Kan., a town that a grand total of 6,500 people call home.

And the chief executive of Pioneer Communications (www.pta.net) isn't concerned that his company's 5,000-square-mile service area has an overall customer density of less than four households per network route mile — a figure that drops to less than one customer per mile in the least populated parts of southwestern Kansas.

But Veach is quite proud of the fact that, sparse though it may be, the customer population served by Pioneer is savvy enough to demand high-bandwidth services, which he's even more proud to be able to provide.

"I think some people write off rural America as being occupied by people who don't understand or need technology," Veach says. "We provide service to communities with large numbers of natural gas businesses and a lot of agribusiness, and the customers absolutely understand that they need more bandwidth in order to stay competitive."

Pioneer, which operates as both a phone company and cable TV provider, in some ways is on the cutting edge of consumer broadband deployment. It's one of the few service providers that offers both cable modem and Digital Subscriber Line services. Pioneer just finished upgrading its cable network for two-way duty — something that most major cable operators are still struggling to accomplish. And to get DSL to far-flung customers, Pioneer is replacing hundreds of miles of copper wires with fiber-optic cabling to push DSL's starting point farther out from its central offices.

On the services side, Pioneer also is testing DSL's ability to deliver video programming to customers that live beyond the reach of its cable network, using video-over-DSL technology from mPhase Technologies.

Richard Civille believes Pioneer has the right attitude about servicing customers in rural areas. As the executive director of the Center for Civic Networking (www.civicnet.org), Civille works in rural areas to promote use of the Net in community economic development, and he has seen the need for extra capacity in rural America.

"There is an incredible need for bandwidth in rural communities," he says. "As the Internet becomes more important and integral to business pro cesses, and as urban areas are upgraded to provide faster Internet service, rural businesses are going to be placed at an extreme disadvantage if they can't keep up in the bandwidth race."

Civille says carriers are mistaken if they believe that rural business owners don't understand what extra bandwidth can mean for their companies. He points to a recent workshop his group held in Alamosa, Colo., an area in which a relatively poor population is served mostly by small businesses.

"The workshop was attended by 150 people," Civille says. "They were adamant about the fact that Internet access no longer is a concern. Instead, they complained about slow access speeds. They are demanding bandwidth because they know they're losing time and money without it."

The work and cost of providing such services is being absorbed largely by companies such as Pioneer.

"Yes, it's more expensive for us to run DSL into rural areas than it is for carriers in big cities," Pioneer's Veach says. "But our philosophy is that we've got to serve them somehow."