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Federal broadband funding provides boost for rural regions

The federal infrastructure bill getting passed by Congress is great news, something that will lead to many much needed public improvements throughout the United States.

It means that a substantial number of roads and bridges will get upgrades. They’ll be brought back to favorable condition in a way that keeps them vital in the 21st century.

The bill also addresses the need for 21st century technology to become standard everywhere in the country. Millions of dollars will be invested in the expansion of broadband technology. Rural locations will have better opportunities to get state of the art service.

It’s one more chapter in a long history of bringing modern technology into the lives of rural residents. It started in the early 20th century with the automobile.

The process continued with rural electrification and later rural phone service. It’s hard to imagine a time when there was no electricity to power household appliances. The idea of not having a telephone seems like extreme isolation.

Another major step involved rural water service in the late 20th century. As a young reporter in the early 1990s I had the opportunity to chronicle the expansion of the Lincoln Pipestone Rural Water system to communities between Porter and Green Valley.

I enjoyed tracking the rural water expansion process. It was truly good news. People in the expansion area had heard very good things from nearby areas where people had hooked onto the system after it was formed in 1979. They were glad to have a new alternative to maintaining a private well.

Broadband promises to be another step forward. In the 21st century the Internet is almost a fundamental basic need. Someone doesn’t totally have a normal life without any home-based Internet or an Internet connected mobile device.

It’s reached the point where many people aren’t likely to choose to live in a location that lacks state of the art service.

Schools need it to provide children and teenagers with the best possible learning opportunities. The business community needs it to keep up with the pace of the economy. Service providers become better able to meet the needs of their clients.

Sometimes it gets said that we shouldn’t expand government, that the private sector should be totally in charge of economic development.

Infrastructure, including broadband technology, is an example of how in some instances there’s a need for the federal government to step up to the plate. It needs to provide the starting point for modernization in locations far away from metropolitan areas.

Private development always has to factor in the “economy of scale”. They have to charge for services based on the cost of installation and maintenance.

It’s often not cost effective to build a highway, extend water lines, or provide Internet to a small number of people unless they pay a substantial amount per household as a cost recovery for the provider.

Federal incentives have often made the difference. Many times it’s gone hand in hand with the start-up of cooperatives run by local and regional shareholders. People get reliable service along with a voice in determining how the services will be organized.

Telecommunications has great potential to follow the cooperative model. There should be fair opportunities for cities to start municipally owned entities, and for stakeholders in a region to pool their resources for a member governed enterprise.

It might even go beyond simply connecting to homes and offices. A potential exists to start office centers for telecommuters. They could work for any employer anywhere in the world by renting office spaces in their communities, ones that might come with in-house technical support.

Polls show that many people would like to live in smaller communities that offer a more relaxed lifestyle than a busy urban center,

The era of the Internet might give those people more options for where to live. It’s been slow to develop in the past 25 years because of the tradition of working in an office, but it’s starting to catch on with the public and with employers.

The long range potential of Internet connections is tremendous. It’s likely to accelerate the pace of technological and social change. What happened in 2021 with the federal infrastructure bill is likely to go down in history as a valuable cornerstone.

— Jim Muchlinski is a longtime reporter and contributor to the Marshall Independent

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