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In 2009, as part of the economic stimulus package, $2.5 billion was allocated to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide broadband Internet service to unserved and underserved communities. The idea was to increase economic development, spur investment and improve the quality of life for those in rural areas. However, some small communities that have the most to gain will still be left behind.
Take southwest Searcy County, for example. Michael Horton decided to return to his hometown of Snowball, just south of the Buffalo River in Northwest Arkansas, after finishing his graduate studies at the University of Arkansas. He and his wife like the quiet surroundings, the farm life, working in the garden. But there's one thing he misses about Fayetteville: high-speed Internet. When Horton heard stimulus funds would be allocated for rural broadband, he got excited.
"I figured this is a sure deal," Horton says. "There's no way we're not going to come away with some of that because that was always the excuse that was given by the phone company. It wasn't profitable. So if the government is going to subsidize the cost of this, then surely towns like Snowball and Witt Springs is where it's going to end up. Well, it turns out that's not the case."
Windstream, the company that serves southwest Searcy County, applied for $7.2 million in federal funds to bring broadband to rural communities. The communications company applied for funds to be used in towns like Bigelow, Crossett, Dalark, Elkins, Green Forest, Greenbrier, Harrison, Little Italy, Mulberry, Perryville, Quitman, Sheridan, and Westfork. Snowball wasn't on the list.
"I don't know how they define rural," Horton says. "Just colloquially I can tell you what it means and it's certainly not Elkins and Greenbrier. It's farm areas, mountainous country, very low population per square mile."
James T. Meister, vice president of state government affairs at Windstream, says that even though towns like Snowball and Witt Springs met the grant's qualifications, it's still not economically viable to offer broadband Internet there. But isn't that what the grant is for, customers like Horton wonder? To fund projects companies might not otherwise find profitable?
"Absolutely it is," says Meister. "However we're looking at a cost, just to get there, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 million. We've looked at it very closely and we just cannot make those numbers work. And I say that even with 75 percent grant funding. It's just the number of people vs. the capital expenditure, and the ongoing expenditures that it requires, would just never make sense."
Horton says the people of Snowball have been asking for high-speed service for years. One of those people is Tim Hayes. Hayes lives in Snowball and is the I.T. manager at Superior Forestry Service in Tilly, where broadband is available, but with limitations.
"It's a wireless connection that's line-of-sight so even vegetation will stop it," Hayes says. "We would have a lot of use for it here for our employees to be able to log in and do some work during the evenings or during an ice storm, but it's just not available. Even with the wireless, we don't have enough bandwidth to do video-conferencing or virtual private networking or anything like that."
Hayes says broadband Internet would be good not just for the business community but for everyone. Marvin Switzer agrees. He's a resident of Snowball and a father of three. He says his kids could really use a better Internet connection to help them with their school work.
"Well, the Internet's just a big deal now," he says. "They need it for school and the dial-up just doesn't cut it anymore. It takes too long to pull anything up. I get so aggravated every time I sit down on it that I don't even use it at the house."
There might be hope yet, Meister says. The Federal Communications Commission is working on a National Broadband Plan, an ambitious venture that would bring broadband to every American, even those in rural areas.
"Believe me, we hear our customers' concerns and we live in some of those communities too," Meister says. "That is why we are meeting with the FCC on a weekly basis, trying to make sure that this national broadband plan is structured in such a way that it helps us reach those communities. And we see that as our best hope for being able to do that."
Horton sees the national plan as a "pie in the sky" idea and plans to continue his fight to help bring broadband to his community.
But according to Meister, infrastructure costs remain, including laying down more fiber-optic cable to their central office in the area.
"Telecommunication companies like Windstream like to talk about it because it allows them to kick the can down the road. In areas like southwest Searcy County, every household has a landline, meaning most of the work for DSL service is already finished," Horton says. "I love it here, I was raised here and I've got a hundred years of family history here and I would like to continue to live here," Horton says. "But if we plan on having a family in a few years, I don't want my child living as a second class citizen because the phone company decided five or 10 years ago that we weren't good enough to provide broadband service to."
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