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Texas a leader at providing rural Web

Rural Routers

To many folks, surfing the Web is as normal as talking on the telephone. However, Texans living in sparsely populated areas are less likely to be connected. Like the Interstate highways, the information superhighway has bypassed many rural Texans.

While technology gurus are busy developing new products that require advanced, high-speed Internet connections to live up to their potential, some isolated areas in Texas still don't have access to even a dial-up telephone connection. Beyond Internet toys and communicators are the very real applications of distance learning and telemedicine, which are potentially more valuable in sparsely populated places.

Since the inception of public access to the Internet's "network of networks" in the early 1990s, the digital divide separating Internet use between urban and rural users grew rapidly. Now that trend is changing.

Net still spreading
Despite the sinking of many of the start-up companies that intended to install broadband communications across the state and the country, the availability of high-speed connections in sparsely populated areas of Texas is growing faster now than in the big cities.

The U.S. Department of Commerce says that in August 2000, 51.0 percent of all households nationwide had a computer and 41.5 percent had an Internet connection. The picture in Texas was better.

A June 2000 survey by the Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute at the University of Texas showed that 67.3 percent of Texans regularly used computers, and most of them, 60.1 percent, used the Internet.

All areas not classified by the Census Bureau as metropolitan are essentially rural, and generally include sparsely populated places of fewer than 2,500 people not immediately adjacent to a metropolitan area. Seventy-seven percent of Texas' counties are considered rural, and 15.4 percent of all households in Texas were in rural areas as of July 2001.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 explicitly directs the Federal Communications Commission to ensure that advanced telecommunications services are deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.

According to the National Telecommunications and Information Agency at the U.S. Department of Commerce, one of the most dramatic shifts has been the increase in Internet access by rural households since December 1998.

Online, on the farm
Rural households, which had trailed those in central cities and urban areas, are showing significant gains in Internet access. The gap between households in rural areas and households nationwide that have access to the Internet has closed. There was a 4 percent difference in 1998, but it narrowed to 2.6 percent in 2000.

In rural areas, 38.9 percent of households had Internet access in 2000, an increase of 75 percent from 1998's access rate of 22.2 percent. In October 1997, just 14.8 percent of rural households had online access.

Internet access rates for rural households now approximate those for all households across the country. Texas is a runaway leader in attempts to bring the Internet to its citizens statewide, according to Gene Krick, executive director of the nonprofit TeleCommunity Resource Center.

Krick says the reason Texas is a leader and should continue to lead the way is the Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund (TIF). TIF is a state agency that funds technology in schools, libraries, institutions of higher education and public, nonprofit healthcare facilities. TIF also provides the necessary training to help Texans use technology to improve how they learn, work and play.

Since its first grant was issued on November 15, 1996, TIF has awarded nearly $1 billion to foster computer use through Internet connections and training. In 2001, the TIF Board granted more than $326 million.

TIF also awards Community Networking grants, which were first used to fund technology purchases in Texas in 2000. Some recipients of the grants bought laptops that can be checked out through a library. Others installed kiosks or placed equipment in senior citizen centers or neighborhood Boys and Girls Clubs. TIF's first group of Community Networking grantees reported 208 public access points with 1,181 TIF-funded workstations available to community members.

In addition, because citizens must be trained to use technology before they can realize its benefits, grant recipients offer training to the general public. The first grantees reported that 6,958 people had received training by January 2002. Services are offered in nearly every part of Texas.

Private and public partners
In some areas, telephone lines and cable connections are simply not available or not feasible in the short term despite the best efforts of both public and private entities. The Public Utility Commission (PUC) reported to the 2001 Texas Legislature that seven exchanges in Texas were without access to a local, dial-up Internet service provider. Six of these exchanges--located in Brewster, Crockett, Pecos, Terrell and Val Verde counties--now have the service, according to the Texas Telephone Association.

Digital satellite providers are helping fill the gap. In the U.S., nearly 10 million rural homes--one in four--have a satellite dish for television programming, according to Pegasus Communications Corp., the nation's largest satellite dish provider.

A new partnership between DirecTV and Pegasus called Pegasus Express focuses on serving rural customers with an always-on Internet connection at speeds comparable to cable and digital subscriber lines, and 10 to 20 times faster than ordinary dial-up access. According to Pegasus, the cost is about the same as that of dial-up access and a second phone line.

For the future
There is also a debate over whether the amount of bandwidth available is enough to handle current and future Internet users.

In the 1990s, private investors spent an estimated $90 billion to install a fiber optic network throughout the U.S. that remains largely unused, according to a 2001 report by Merrill Lynch. The report says less than 7 percent of existing capacity is in use; however, unused fiber capacity in the nation's telecommunications network could get used up rapidly, according to a September 2001 report from TeleChoice Inc., a Tulsa, Okla. telecommunications firm.

"There is a core assumption that there is so much unlit fiber in the ground that it could take forever to use it up," says Russ McGuire, chief strategy officer at TeleChoice. "But some forms of traffic can eat into that fiber supply very fast."

In a welcoming message to the Fourth National Community Network Conference in Austin in December 2001, Texas Gov. Rick Perry challenged providers to make 2002 the Year Of Community Technology.

There is a vigorous effort under way to give rural and urban Texans the opportunity to use technology to the fullest. Texas is the proving ground that there is room for everyone at the table. Because Texas has several of the largest cities in the country as well as many of the most remote, non-metropolitan enclaves, a spirit of cooperation and co-existence has helped pave the way for getting all Texans on the information superhighway.

Robert Jones