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42 million Americans don't have high-speed internet. Local providers may be the key

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Despite years of federal initiatives, high-speed internet remains out of reach for millions of rural Americans. Most big broadband companies say it's just not profitable enough to connect remote places. But as David Condos of the Kansas News Service reports, some smaller, local broadband providers are finding ways to get rural customers connected in places the telecom giants have left behind.

DAVID CONDOS, BYLINE: Matt Stout is a farmer and rancher in southwest Kansas and lives off a dirt road one mile from his nearest neighbor. His best-case scenarios for internet speeds have been just a few megabits per second, way slower than what most people in cities would even consider internet.

MATT STOUT: Living out in the country is nice for some things, and then you pay for it in other areas.

CONDOS: It's estimated that 42 million Americans still don't have high-speed internet. And in places like Western Kansas, the reason is obvious. It's hard and expensive to wire a small number of people spread out in the country. With fiberoptic cable costing tens of thousands of dollars per mile, the chances of AT&T or Comcast showing up at Stout's door are slim to none.

STOUT: That door is kind of heavy.

CONDOS: But then one day last year, Stout saw a white pole sticking out of his yard. A locally owned rural Kansas broadband company called Ideatek had buried a fiber line along his dirt road.

STOUT: Right here - just all the way to town, right down this road ditch. My house just happened to be right on the sweet spot.

CONDOS: So today, after eight years of spotty, slow connection, Stout is getting gigabit speeds that rival any city in the U.S. Inside Stout's house, Ideatek's John Osborn is running a thin yellow wire from the wall to a box behind a TV. This is just one of the dozens of fiber installations he's done recently around here, making him a popular guy.

JOHN OSBORN: I get handshakes and hugs. And it's nice to be able to walk in town after doing this and see your customer, you know? And they're just all smiles.

CONDOS: Ideatek's focus on Southwest Kansas is an example of the growing number of American small towns, farms and ranches finally joining the broadband age thanks to local internet providers taking a stake in the rural communities they call home. So how are these small local companies able to solve a problem that telecom giants haven't? While government subsidies help, the biggest difference is that the local companies view it as their mission to connect their neighbors, even if it's not a big moneymaker. In a lot of ways, what they're doing mirrors the rural telephone co-ops that connected farm towns to the outside world a century ago. In fact, some of the local broadband companies in western Kansas started out doing just that.

Catherine Moyer heads up Pioneer Communications, which was founded by local farmers as a telephone co-op in 1950. It now has about 10,000 internet customers, and 3 out of 4 of them have fiber. She says the fact that Pioneer is small and local is exactly what gives it the flexibility to spend money on what its communities need rather than what will turn the most profit.

CATHERINE MOYER: While we need to make money to, you know, continue to exist, we don't answer to Wall Street. We don't answer to shareholders. You know, we have member owners.

CONDOS: University of Virginia professor Christopher Ali studies rural broadband policy. He says that community-focused mission makes local companies the best hope for wiring rural America and that the big national players have failed to deliver on their rural broadband promises, even after getting billions in federal funding. For locally owned companies, seeing their community succeed over the long term is a big part of their return on investment, so if they can at least break even spending $20,000 on a mile of fiber, they'll do it.

CHRISTOPHER ALI: If you think about it as an investment in the community versus how much time you're going to need to recoup your return on investment, that's two very different ways of looking at that $20,000.

STOUT: So now we're just going to pull up something on the internet and see how quick...

CONDOS: Back at Matt Stout's farm, the big moment is finally here. The wires are hooked up. The Wi-Fi is on. And a quick speed test shows that his internet is now running more than 150 times faster than it was this morning.

STOUT: With today's reliance on emails and Zoom calls and all that, it will be nothing short of life-changing, really.

CONDOS: And with billions in new federal broadband subsidies on the way, just how much goes to local companies rather than national ones could decide how many more rural Americans get to experience a day like this in the near future.

For NPR News, I'm David Condos in Ford County, Kansas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Condos
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