By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 23, 2005
Most of the time, Alicia Stahl can't imagine living anywhere other than her 500-acre farm in a tranquil stretch of Hughesville, where the only sounds on a recent afternoon were the bellowing Black Angus cattle and the tawny planks of a tobacco barn rattling in the spring breeze.
But whenever she tries to connect to the Internet -- to buy parts for a broken-down tractor or study for graduate courses in electronic commerce that she's taking mostly over the Web -- Stahl becomes so frustrated that she's tempted to move to the city. She said the only reliable Internet access in this rural eastern part of Charles County is dial-up service through her telephone, which is about 50 times slower than some broadband connections in urban areas.
"It just drives you absolutely crazy," said Stahl, 42. "That's the main problem today in rural America: getting high-speed Internet access."
Thousands of people on the exurban periphery of the Washington region -- just an hour from the nation's capital and one of the country's hottest technology centers -- have Internet access so slow that it is often nonfunctional. The telephone and cable companies wiring most of the region to the Internet have yet to come to these rural outposts, and some suspect that they never will.
So some far-out communities are taking matters into their own hands. Loudoun County just appointed a broadband czar to bring high-speed Internet to the most far-flung reaches of the county. In Southern Maryland, a regional group has commissioned a feasibility study to explore the same goal.
"My recommendation to folks in rural America is to be proactive rather than reactive," said Joseph Sudo, a director at CCG Consulting Inc., which is preparing the study for the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland. The company plans to release a report next month to outline how a regional wireless network could be deployed throughout Southern Maryland by county governments or by private businesses.
In the meantime, a local utility, the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative, is launching one of the first pilot projects in the country to determine how affordably high-speed Internet can be carried over power lines in rural areas. Broadband over power lines, a technology that makes connecting to the Internet possible with an electric outlet, already is deployed in more densely populated areas, including Manassas and Potomac.
"We're very optimistic that this technology will allow us bring high-speed Internet access throughout the area," said Tom Tudor, who heads the project for the utility. He said the cooperative gets several calls a day from customers without high-speed Internet who would like the utility to provide broadband over power lines.
Fewer than 10 percent of homes in rural America have broadband access, according to the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative. In Southern Maryland, which consists of Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties, as much as 20 percent of households cannot get high-speed Internet service, Sudo said.
The lack of fast access affects residents and businesses throughout the region in ways large and small.
Anne Whitaker, 57, a government consultant who lives in Calvert, said dearth of broadband is detracting businesses from moving into the area. She said several companies have left Southern Maryland recently because of the problem.
One frustrated businessman is her husband, who runs a company that provides technology support for librarians from their home in Huntingtown. Whitaker said the spotty satellite broadband service they used to get would go down every time a strong gust of wind blew by, and technicians would refuse to come out to repair it.
So her husband has to use dial-up.
"My husband is just screaming his brains out because it's so slow," she said. "It's killing us. It's absolutely killing us."
Katie Stickel, 44, said she can't get DSL or cable-modem service to her 500-acre wheat-and-corn farm in Nanjemoy, a sleepy peninsula in Charles. So when her 16-year-old daughter had to do research for an English paper this month, Stickel said, she had to drag her daughter to her broadband-equipped office in White Plains.
"It's a big problem for students if you live in a rural area," she said. "You have no access to an electronic infrastructure.
Harry Mitchell, a spokesman for Verizon, said the company is aware of the fierce demand for broadband and is trying to expand its reach to all parts of the country. But he said it is sometimes too expensive to provide service to residents who often live miles away from anyone else.
"You've got to have a business model where you have a chance of making some money," he said.
In other states, telephone and cable companies have raised concerns that publicly owned utilities and local governments supplying broadband over power lines have an unfair advantage over private companies. In response, they have supported legislation that restricts what those utilities and municipalities can do.
Nebraska is considering a measure that would prevent public power utilities from selling broadband provided over power lines. More than a dozen states have passed some type of legislation limiting what governments can do to offer broadband access, according to MuniWireless.com, an online newsletter that tracks community-based wireless projects.
"Our belief is that the private sector is best positioned to build these networks," Mitchell said.
But even in such places as Loudoun, home to some of the vast computer warehouses that direct the nation's Internet traffic, private companies have yet to provide large parts of the county -- especially rural areas -- with broadband access.
So officials, concerned that the Loudoun is being left behind, hired Scott W. Bashore, a former technology executive from Loudoun-based America Online Inc., to be the county's first manager of broadband services. Since he started six weeks ago, Bashore has been working with telephone, cable and wireless providers to map out which parts of the county have access now and where the biggest problem areas are.
Although fiber-optic cables already pulse underground in the suburban east, Loudoun's 300-square-mile rural area offers added hurdles and opportunities. Wireless technologies may allow Internet service providers to cover wide distances more efficiently and cheaply, but there are limits.
"If somebody's down in a valley, and they are surrounded by 60-year-old oak trees in full bloom, you're going to have a hard time getting a signal in there," Bashore said.
That's partly why Steve E. Collier, vice president of emerging technologies at the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative, said subsidies from the federal government probably will be needed to ensure that high-speed Internet access extends to the most far-flung parts of the country.
"There are certain things in this country that we believe people have a right to have no matter where they are: clean drinking water, paved roads, basic phone service, basic electric service," he said. "I think ultimately, broadband Internet is going to be one of those things."
Staff writer Michael Laris also contributed to this story.