The Great Digital Divide

Why rural Texas got stuck with dead-slow Internet service.

How are you going to keep them down on the farm— or on the ranch—when they've seen the high-speed Internet? That's a question some rural Texans are asking, along with state legislators, state government officials, and academic researchers. That's because rural Texas is lagging behind the state's urban centers in access to high-speed Internet connections, and this disparity is not good news for the state's economy.

Anyone who has used broadband access to the Internet—at a speed of greater than 200,000 bits per second, or at least six times faster than a fast modem—knows that it transforms the experience of using online services. Files and e-mail zip over the wires, Web pages appear almost instantly, and it's really the only practical way to deal with video or audio sources. The first time you use the Internet over a high-speed connection, modem access is no longer adequate, and you immediately begin to wonder how you ever put up with the World Wide Wait.

But many rural Texans can't get fast Internet access even if they're willing to pay for it. They're stuck at modem speeds, sometimes even slow modem speeds, because the telecommunications companies in many cases haven't invested in upgrading rural equipment to accommodate new digital technologies, which are found in abundance in cities. That limits the kinds of things people can do on the Internet if they live in the country, and it also has the effect of further concentrating businesses and people in crowded urban areas. In the long run, the economic viability of enormous stretches of Texas may be at stake.

That might seem like an extreme statement. But in January the Public Utility Commission of Texas released a report stating, "High-speed access to the Internet is increasingly seen as critical to Texas' economic development, especially in rural Texas. While some rural areas may be well connected, most still lack access to the same telecommunications infrastructure or technologies enjoyed by those living in urban areas." In a survey of digital-subscriber-line (DSL) connections deployed in Texas by December 1999, fully 94.5 percent of the DSL lines were in urban areas. Part of the reason is obvious: DSL requires that the customer be within 17,500 feet of a telephone switching center, and the technology is so expensive that if only one or two customers are within this range, it is not cost effective. That rules out a lot of rural customers.

It has only been in the past year or so that some rural communities have started to see ISDN, or integrated services digital network, a connection up to four times as fast as dial-up modems but only about one third as fast as DSL and considered dead in urban markets. Nevertheless, the demand has been so high for ISDN in the Laredo area that Southwestern Bell has already run out of ISDN lines. Why the shortage? According to Gene Crick, the founder of the Texas Internet Service Providers Association, Southwestern Bell "dropped the ball" because "it was temporarily distracted from ISDN by competition for other services, like DSL."

But even critics say there is some hope. In spite of the shortages of ISDN lines, Southwestern Bell is obligated to provide expanded ISDN service in smaller markets and rural areas. The telecom giant has also awarded a three-year grant to Crick and his group, the non-profit TeleCommunity Resource Center, to help educate Texas rural community leaders about the availability and benefits of digital connectivity in the state—assuming, of course, that they can get the service. Crick will be doing digital telecom "road shows" in small towns, for local business and government leaders, visiting about twenty towns a year for the next three years.

Still, there is a long way to go, and urban and suburban consumers and voters should understand that if rural Texas doesn't get reasonable access to broadband Internet services soon, the economic prospects of the largest portion of the state will sag, and that means more and more young Texans will be forced to move to the cities. Next time you're sitting in rush-hour traffic, wish for high-speed Internet connections in West Texas, the Panhandle, and the Rio Grande Valley.

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