The Obama stimulus package includes $7.2 billion to help rural America access the Internet more easily, and officials in Genesee County would like to ensure some of that money benefits the region.
Known as "Title VI--Broadband Technology Opportunities Program," the allocation is a mere 1 percent of the entire stimulus program.
County Manager Jay Gsell clued me in a couple of weeks ago about the County's efforts to attract some of that money to help areas of the county that do not yet have broadband access. He said the broadband effort is one of many tasks on the County's to-do list related to bringing as much stimulus money to the county as possible.
Stephen Zimmer, Genesee County Director of Information Technology, said the county is participating in a state program to map current broadband availability and identify areas of need.
New York Farm Bureau President Dean Norton applauds the effort to help rural residents access the Internet more easily.
"Farmers in rural, agricultural areas need broadband," Norton said. "Support for broadband has been in our policy book for years. Technology is necessary to keep agriculture viable. Your business (The Batavian) thrives off of technology and agriculture is needing technology more and more."
Much is unknown even at this point about how the broadband program will be administered, and it may not be until 2010 before we see any results. This PCWorld article explains some of the unresolved questions about the program.
The broadband stimulus program is also not without controversy.
Former FCC economist Michael Katz has been acerbic in his dismissal of rural American and the need for spending $7.2 billion on improving Internet access.
Katz listed ways that the $7.2 billion could be put to better use, including an effort to combat infant deaths. But he also spoke of rural places as environmentally hostile, energy inefficient and even weak in innovation, simply because rural people are spread out across the landscape.
"The notion that we should be helping people who live in rural areas avoid the costs that they impose on society … is misguided," Katz went on, "from an efficiency point of view and an equity one."
According to the same NPR piece, a New York Times article has referred to the rural broadband initiative as a "cyber bridge to nowhere."
But others say the package could help another 20 million Americans get broadband access, and high-speed access does help create and retain jobs.
A study of 3,000 people in Michigan, Texas and Kentucky found those in areas that received broadband Internet grants from the federal Rural Utilities Service quickly signed up for service, matching the penetration rates in cities. That happened where network investment was coupled with community programs aimed at convincing people about the benefits of Internet access.
Home broadband users were more likely to start businesses or take classes online, and less likely to move away, the researchers at Michigan State University found.
Norton said a lot of farmers in Genesee County are still stuck with dial-up, which hurts their productivity. It also keeps them from accessing more advanced online-software that help them run their businesses.
"(Broadband) will help the more progressive and larger enterprises the most," Norton said, "but with the smaller ones, there lies another opportunity to educate people and help them."