“One day, broadband services will know no boundary.” — FCC Chairman Michael Powell.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — Having overseen the issue of stinging financial reports on earnings over the past three years earlier in the week, Nortel’s chief executive officer returned attention to networking on Thursday.

In a speech delivered in Washington, DC, Bill Owens called for “creative and extraordinary measures” by federal, state and local governments to help spread access to high-speed broadband technologies to rural areas.

Organizations such as the e-NC, formally known as the Rural Internet Access Authority and economic partnerships throughout North Carolina have helped drive broadband efforts at local levels. President Bush has also called for a federal broadband initiative.

“Information and technology are increasingly becoming integral parts of the national and global economy,” Owens said in the speech on Capitol Hill. “If rural America does not have ready access to this information and the infrastructure on which it is delivered, we will see the gap in opportunity and prosperity widen between rural and urban America.

“The federal government, communities and industry can help alleviate this potential threat by adopting creative and extraordinary measures to help accelerate the deployment of broadband across the country, particularly in rural areas that can be more expensive to serve,” he added.

“While I recognize that the FCC and Bush administration have made broadband deployment a national priority and taken needed steps, there is still more that should be done.”

Recent data show that broadband services are spreading but some gaps remain. (The FCC has an interesting web site wrapping up rural broadband initiatives. See: www.fcc.gov/cgb/rural/ )

According to statistics compiled by the FCC in December, 5.7 percent of the nation’s zip codes still lack high-speed Internet access at digital subscriber line (DSL) speeds or higher. Another 13.8 percent have only one high-speed provider.

In population areas with 25 or fewer people, broadband penetration is at 96 percent or less. However, both North Carolina and Georgia report only one zip code where broadband isn’t available. South Carolina reports three.

Is Rural America ‘Underserved’?

Also, the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, which represents some 560 rural telephone service providers, reacted strongly to a recent editorial in a New York newspaper that charged rural America was being ignored.

“Allegations that all of rural America is being underserved when it comes to access to advanced data services are incorrect and require clarification,” an economist with the NTCA wrote. He noted some interesting facts based on a survey completed in June of last year:

  • Of the 560 carriers, 92 percent offered DSL-speed (200 Kbps) or higher Internet access “to some portion” of their customer base, up from 18 percent in 2000
  • Among those customers, however, only 12 percent subscribed to broadband. The figure is a big jump from the 1 percent of 1% in 1999, but the figure does show many people don’t either see the necessity of broadband, or don’t want to pay the generally higher prices for those services.
  • According to the e-NC (www.e-nc.org ), 85 of North Carolina’s counties meet federal criteria to be considered “rural”. e-NC statistics also show that:

  • More than 80 percent of households have access to high-speed Internet services.
  • More than a dozen local and regional networking projects that ensure more than 75 counties will have improved service.
  • North Carolina and Georgia each noted six zip codes with one provider; South Carolina has 15.

    Georgia has 1.06 million high-speed users, North Carolina 966,000 and South Carolina 354,000. (not counting most large businesses)

    Owens’ Action Plan

    In a statement issued by Nortel, Owens called for eight specific steps to encourage broadband — and some very lofty goals, such as 100 megabit speed to the household.

    They are:

  • “Creation of a federal regulatory framework for broadband to remove the uncertainty which deters carrier investment
  • “Setting a goal to bring at least 10 to 20 Mbps of bandwidth to every subscriber in America in the near term and 100 megabits within the next decade
  • “Providing tax incentives to carriers to invest in broadband infrastructure
  • “Supporting development of wireless and other technologies for rural broadband service
  • “Allocating tobacco settlement and other government funds to support deployment of broadband in rural areas
  • “Employing multiple channels to enhance the skills needed by rural citizens to get the most out of broadband for improved healthcare, education, business, commerce and quality of life
  • “Building government/community/industry partnerships to create new services and applications
  • “Fostering commitment in rural communities to deploying services and applications in a way that will move local economies”
  • The FCC is taking a variety of steps to help foster broadband growth, including more incentives for rural telemedicine initiatives and wireless. One key effort is the Joint Federal Rural Wireless Outreach Initiative.

    In North Carolina, public-private partnerships have generated substantial work in rural areas. Under the guidance of Jane Patterson, the e-NC is helping counties, community colleges and towns to build rural telework centers while working with private carriers to “incent” more rapid deployment of DSL to rural areas and putting together combinations of offerings — such as fiber and satellite — to reach others. (MCNC has been a big part of the funding. MCNC recently contributed the last $3.5 million of $30 million pledged to the e-NC broadband efforts. The money came from the sale of the former networking firm Cronos in which MCNC held a significant interest.)

    Taking broadband outside metro areas continues to be a work in progress, and the goals are high. As Owens said, broadband is an economic necessity.

    “One day,” FCC Chairman Michael Powell said in a recent speech, “broadband services will know no boundary.”

    Good line. Work remains to be done.

    Related Links:

    For information on the wireless effort, see: http://wireless.fcc.gov/outreach/ruralinitiative/

    For the latest FCC broadband statistics, see: www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Common_Carrier/Reports/FCC-State_Link/IAD/hspd1204.pdf

    Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.