Digital arroyos and imaginary fences : assessing the impact of public policy, communication technologies, and commercial investment on Internet access in rural Texas
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One of the key complications in connecting citizens to the Internet is "remoteness," or distance from a community to the nearest metropolis. Rural areas often have higher communication and transportation costs, and have difficulty attracting investment and services in areas with insufficient telecommunication infrastructure. The communication perspective distinguishes communication from information transport, and asserts communication as the principal function of both technology and policy. The study utilizes a political economy approach to examine the interaction of specific Internet technologies, Universal Service and Texas Expanded Local Calling (ELC) policies, and commercial investment patterns with Internet access in rural Texas. A statistical analysis of 208 rural telephone exchanges was conducted to determine the relationship between Internet access, demographic characteristics and the presence of ELC policy. A concentrated case study of seven rural Texas counties, including interviews with Internet Service Providers, determined the quality and bandwidth of rural connections and the viability of state policy in addressing access issues for remote citizens. Remote communities were far less likely to have Internet access. However, those communities with ELC were much more likely to be connected than their counterparts. ELC policy favors those communities closer to metropolitan areas and served by major telephone carriers. The specific rules of ELC policy eliminate the neediest communities from regulatory relief. Rural citizens also are more likely to have Internet access in areas served by major carriers, with relatively low Hispanic populations and relatively high incomes. There are fewer ISPs in remote regions and those few are rarely prosperous. Bandwidth is generally lower, prices can be higher, and fewer services are offered. This study indicates the importance of the "last mile" of telecommunications infrastructure in connecting citizens to the Internet and highlights the need to examine a complex array of factors that condition the discursive and expressive potential of citizens in our communication age.