Across the United States, an estimated 13 million households and more than three million small businesses currently communicate and do business with no form of high-speed connectivity. But with the recent emphasis on universal broadband access, that picture is beginning to change.
Simply put, a broadband revolution is taking place in the United States. For several years, leaders in both government and industry have urged the provisioning of universal broadband access to enable small businesses to compete in the global economy. And in an April 2004 speech, President George W. Bush called for universal, affordable broadband access throughout the U.S. by 2007.
To support the success of this vision, forums are taking place all across the country. In one such forum cosponsored by the Rural Broadband Coalition (RBC) and Hughes Network Systems in September 2005, a panel of experts met in Washington, D.C., to address the vital need for universal broadband access and the challenges to getting there. Panel members of “Broadband Access for Rural America,” who included representatives from the Federal Communications Commission, the RBC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utility Service, and Hughes, discussed issues ranging from awareness and regulation to education, financing, and technology. Attendees were drawn from private and non-profit sectors, the press, and government, including representatives from congressional offices.
One of the challenges discussed by the panel is the lack of awareness among rural small businesses of their ability to access broadband. According to RBC managing director Dr. Alan Shark, broadband will soon be considered as essential as traditional utility services. The RBC was established to advance broadband communication availability in rural America. “We have a nice mission, that is, ‘leave no town behind.’ We are for any effort that would increase broadband availability,” said Shark.
John Branscome, acting legal advisor for wireless, technology, and international issues at the FCC, said that broadband is an important policy goal and that the agency, which is paying special attention to rural communities, is creating as little regulation as possible to avoid impeding the goal of universal access.
Mike Cook, senior vice president of Hughes, discussed the broad availability of satellite technology, particularly to those areas that are underserved by terrestrial systems such as DSL and cable. Cook also announced the results of a small business survey commissioned by Hughes in an effort to learn how to better serve small businesses, especially in rural areas. Among the findings, the results showed that although most businesses need broadband to conduct basic business activities, over 50 percent of small businesses polled that do not presently use broadband are unaware of available solutions. Hughes is currently working in partnership with RBC to educate businesses and individuals about broadband technology options.
The Rural Utility Service, a unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is addressing the financing issues of rural broadband service. Acting administrator Curtis Anderson said the agency has $2 billion available to fund loans for broadband access to communities of 20,000 or less.
Inherently faster, more efficient, and ultimately more economical than dial-up access, broadband communications are available using different technologies in different areas. Some geographical areas may offer DSL, while others provide cable and wireless. Satellite has excellent potential in most areas, including remote locations. And certain areas may be best served with a hybrid solution—a mixture of two or more technologies.
View of the Future
“Broadband will change the way that we communicate, the way we work, the way we receive healthcare, the way we do business, and the way we’re entertained,” said Branscome. With Hughes satellite broadband service available virtually everywhere in the continental U.S., that day may be right around the corner.