Broadband Market Lively in Rural Arizona

Published February 1, 2009

Tiny Superior, Arizona—population just more than 3,000—has something many towns of its size don’t have: abundant broadband Internet access.

Experts say the successful rollout of a wi-fi service in Superior with no long-term financial commitment of public funds shows the private sector can bring broadband to rural communities better than government-directed schemes.

For more than a year, WI-VOD, a company that specializes in providing Internet to rural communities, has offered unlimited broadband wi-fi service for $29.99 per month. About 100 Superior residents currently subscribe.

Creative Financing

Superior received $340,000 in up-front funding to help create the town’s wi-fi infrastructure. Of that, $270,000 came from a rural development grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The town chipped in $25,000, and the business community contributed $10,000.

But unlike municipal wi-fi programs that have failed in several cities across the country—and often left taxpayers on the hook to support unsustainable business plans—that is the end of the public’s stake. WI-VOD, not the local government, is responsible for maintaining the network and attracting customers.

Cheaper in Future

Cord Blomquist, a tech policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, said the Federal Communications Commission could foster more such rural broadband success stories by opening up more wireless spectrum to the wi-fi market.

“The reason rural communities are getting hooked up now, as opposed to 10 years ago, is because allowing companies to put up more towers makes wi-fi a lot cheaper,” Blomquist said.

Blomquist says wi-fi will proliferate in rural areas if more local communities take the initiative to provide broadband for themselves instead of waiting for a bigger government entity to do it.

Need for Realism

But policymakers from Washington, DC to local county commissioners, Blomquist said, need to come to grips with a long-standing fact: Achieving technological parity between rural areas and big cities is not a realistic goal. And, in the end, that’s OK, he said.

“I think one thing people have to realize when they live in a rural community is that they have to make sacrifices,” Blomquist said. “Rural residents have septic tanks, not the central sewage systems you see in urban areas. It’s the same with modern technology. Generally, broadband speeds are going to be slower than for people living in a really big city.”

Krystle Russin ([email protected]) writes from Texas.