It’s more than a year later and the federal stimulus package is still drawing criticism from its opponents. But the New York Times reports that the least controversial part of the legislation may end up being the money allocated to improving broadband access.

The $7.2 billion to extend broadband service in the last stimulus package was approved without significant debate. The program is intended to extend broadband service to what is known as the “middle mile,” which can connect to institutions like schools and hospitals, and the “last mile” — homes and businesses — that big Internet providers have bypassed because the expected revenue was too small to justify the big investments needed.

For some of the beneficiaries, the program will literally mean the difference between isolation and being connected to the rest of the world. “If you don’t have a high-speed Internet connection, it’s almost impossible to get anything done anymore,” said Martin Cary, vice president of broadband services for GCI Communication Corporation of Alaska, the largest Internet service provider in the state.

Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said he saw the extension of Internet service as a significant moment in communications. “Extending broadband in rural America is as important to jobs and growth in the 21st century as extending electricity was in the 20th century,” he said.

But while a new medium for commerce and communication can bring a new way of life to areas, that doesn’t mean it’s entirely positive. The article points out that some rural business owners and ISPs are worried about competition in the aftermath of connections.

James W. Rowh, for instance, who owns an organic farm and natural foods store not far from the Wegeners in Norton, Kan., is wary that the Internet will lure his customers away. “You can find pretty deep discounts online,” he said. “There are only 3,000 people in this town. When you start losing people to the Internet, it’s going to have an effect on your bottom line.”

Even the small companies that have been awarded the grants and loans to extend the broadband fiber lines and build the microwave towers are aware that once they do all the work and sign up the customers, the big carriers may move in with lower rates and lure their business away.

(via)

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