TROY — Access to broadband Internet is no longer a luxury, it's a necessity, and rural areas need more of it, Sen. Claire McCaskill and others said Friday.
The Missouri Democrat and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski hosted a Rural Broadband Forum in Troy, about 50 miles north of St. Louis. About 100 people attended.
Technology usually arrives last in rural areas — electricity, telephone service. McCaskill cited statistics showing that only about two-fifths of rural Americans have broadband Internet.
"Right now, rural areas are getting left behind as it relates to broadband adoption," McCaskill said. "Without fast speeds to the Internet, our commerce, our job creation in this country is going to continue to fall behind."
In March, the FCC unveiled a sweeping proposal to overhaul broadband policy, with the goal of providing high-speed Internet access to underserved areas of the country and to make existing connections even faster.
Genachowski said there are challenges in rural areas, but extending broadband is vital for businesses, emergency responders, health care providers and residents.
"The rest of the world is not standing still," Genachowski said. "If we stand still or move slowly, we're falling behind."
Internet providers agree access in rural areas needs to be improved. At issue is how to go about it.
Walter McCormick, president of the U.S. Telecom Association that represents telephone and Internet companies, said tremendous progress has been made. Eight years ago, about 8 million Americans had access to broadband, now about 300 million have that access and he said getting broadband to the rest is the hard part.
"The distances that are involved and the remoteness of reaching them makes it difficult to construct a viable business plan without some form of government assistance," McCormick said in a telephone interview. "There needs to be some form of public assistance."
At the forum, some questioned why the FCC plan sets a goal of 100 megabytes of broadband for urban areas and just 4 megabytes for rural areas.
"It would be a huge divide," said Brian Cornelius, president of Citizens Telephone in Higginsville, which provides phone and Internet service to about 3,500 customers in western Missouri. "Rural areas are struggling now. We can't have that."
Genachowski said the proposal is a starting point to get some level of broadband throughout the country. He said it would be reviewed regularly "to see how fast we can take that up without busting the budget."
Lincoln County Fire Protection District Chief Mike Cherry said high-speed Internet can be crucial in fires and other disasters.
"The faster we can transmit information, the faster we can get help on the way," Cherry said. "It's endless possibilities for emergency response."
Terry Morrow, superintendent of schools for Lincoln County, said students without broadband face the prospect of falling behind. He said the technology has many applications — kids home sick can receive information straight from a classroom computerized blackboard; schools that can't afford or attract specialty teachers can still provide access to them via electronic hookup with a district that can.
"It saves the taxpayers money, it gives the kids another opportunity, and I don't see how that's bad for anyone," Morrow said.