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Growing Fiber Internet in Rural America: A Stimulus Success Story

• Ryan Singel via
 If you think the Obama administration’s stimulus package is about digging ditches, you’d be right — at least when it comes to funding broadband efforts in rural areas.

Take for instance the Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation reservations in northwest North Dakota, where the Reservation Telephone Cooperative (ResTel) is putting in a 50-Mbps connection to the Elbowwoods Memorial health care center. That connection, made possible by fiber optic cable and broadband stimulus funds, will enable the center to connect patients to doctors and doctors to specialists.

“With this technology, we will have rapid analysis; our tribal members will have access to state-of-the-art medical care and services; an x-ray can be taken and read by a radiologist at a facility miles away,” says Tex Hall, the nation’s chairman. “Our providers will talk to physicians at clinics like Mayo in Rochester, Minnesota, about critical-care patients; our dialysis patients will have immediate access to nephrologists 200 miles away and we will be able to monitor a diabetic patient from their home. Importantly this will be state of the art, no slow upgrades, no fuzzy images; we will have real-time second-by-second network monitoring.”

And it’s not just the hospital that’s getting fiber optic net connections on North Dakota’s reservations. ResTel got a mix of grants and loans from the government totaling $21.9 million — which had to be matched by the cooperative — to lay fiber for businesses, individuals and even cell phone towers.

The stimulus package earmarked $7.2 billion in grants and loans for projects to bring broadband to rural and urban areas. The FCC says the projects funded so far will bring broadband to 2.2 million Americans. That’s a good start, the FCC says, but more than 28 percent of rural Americans — some 18 million people — still can’t order fixed-line internet connections faster than 3 Mbps down, according to the FCC’s June 2011 report.

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