ANNAPOLIS – Virgil Shockley tried to buy airline tickets online recently.
“I turn the computer on, and I go get an iced tea, some chips, and it’s still dialing,” he said. “I go get some pretzels, it’s still connecting . . . I take a bathroom break, and it’s still not on . . . it’s ridiculous.”
Shockley, a Worcester County commissioner, doesn’t have a patience problem: He has dial-up Internet service.
Like many residents of rural Maryland, Shockley lives in an area where spotty and slow Internet coverage is normal, and broadband an expensive and rare commodity.
To fix the problem, the state has launched several efforts to put fiber-optic cable across Maryland and help draw service providers into underserved areas.
The Maryland Broadband Cooperative, a public-private partnership formed in 2006, took main responsibility for laying fiber-optic cables across the state. The most recent addition was the completion of a fiber connection between Salisbury University and the NASA facility on Wallops Island, Va., and the announcement Tuesday that next project would string cable across the Bay Bridge.
Final stages of the project, scheduled for 2010, will connect the nine most rural counties and link Southern and Western Maryland.
But the cooperative only gets broadband to an area: Service providers still have to provide “last-mile” coverage in rural communities. That leaves people like Shockley stuck with dial-up until private-sector service providers take the last step.
“Someone has to invest, to take that trunk line into 10 homes spread over 20 acres,” said Memo Diriker, director of a business and economic research and consulting firm at Salisbury University.
Dave Jenkins, executive director of the Rural Maryland Council, said efforts to bring broadband trunk lines to all areas of the state are well-intentioned, but leave a lot of people frustrated.
“They’re well on the way to getting it actually done,” he said, “but it’s pretty frustrating to get that last-mile connection.”
Lack of broadband access is a nationwide problem: The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2006 ranked the United States 15th for per capita broadband adoption rates, down from fourth in 2001, according to the economic think tank.
“We’re definitely falling behind other industrial countries,” said Scott Lindsay, co-founder of the national Rural Broadband Coalition.
“Over 60 percent of rural communities across the country lack access to broadband,” said John Dillman, the president of the Maryland Broadband Cooperative. “When you compare us to the rest of the world, we’re heading in the wrong direction.”
Lack of broadband access hurts rural industries and communities, said Shockley, who chairs the state’s Rural Broadband Coordination Board.
“We’re seeing a brain drain,” he said. “The best and the brightest are leaving the Eastern Shore.”
Jobs that would have stayed in the community go elsewhere when young people leave for education and training, Lindsay said.
While younger residents are leaving, more retirees are moving into rural areas, increasing the need for broadband to make up for the “lack of health facilities and specialists because of insufficient population numbers in rural areas,” Dillman said.
“With broadband, we can communicate through telehealth, sending CAT scans and using diagnostic services from specialists in more urban areas,” he said.
Health and high-tech are not the only market for broadband in rural areas: Farmers use the Internet to locate international importers and markets, and ship products all over the world.
“It’s now a necessity,” Dillman said. “If you have broadband, you can research markets, get products to them and get higher returns.”
Kent County farmer Jim Miller said he can only get dial-up, making it hard for farmers like him to access market reports, agricultural newsletters and equipment purchasing sites.
Miller said he would use the Internet more if service was quicker. “Like today, I don’t need to spend an hour in front of the computer,” he said.
Susan Schoenian, a regional extension specialist at the Western Maryland Research and Education Center, said farm life is no slower than city life, even if the Internet connection is.
“Producers are often busier than the average person, so slower modem connections or no access at all really affects them,” she said. “Farmers and producers are no different from anyone else — more and more are using the Internet.”
Schoenian, who specializes in sheep and goats, runs Web sites and blogs to keep producers updated on the latest information.
“People in New Zealand even were following some of our posts,” she said. “I find I’m using it more and more to communicate and educate.”
Where broadband is available in rural areas, service can be spotty.
“In a small community of 30 homes or so, homes that are a block away from each other, one may have it, other may not,” said Dillman, who is also executive director of the Upper Shore Regional Council.
Schoenian said she cannot get Verizon broadband, “but my father who lives four miles away can.”
“It’s hit and miss and completely weird,” she said.
Rural areas present three challenges for broadband: topographical, financial and technological. Building high-cost infrastructure for a small number of clients is not economically feasible for companies, and technology can only shoot a signal so far, Lindsay said.
“We’re just now getting to point where we can send wireless through trees, and we have a lot of trees out here,” Dillman said. “Flat terrain is a lot easier, but the reality is we’re not that flat either.”
Broadband service is available by satellite, but it is less secure and customers often “pay an arm and a leg for it,” Shockley said.
Dillman said the figure can be 40 to 60 percent higher than for those in urban areas, even higher for businesses.
“If you look at it in terms of a business, either small or major, it clearly costs thousands of dollars a month to get the capacity needed,” he said.
It boils down to “a fairness and equity thing,” Diriker said. “Anytime you don’t have fast, fair and equitable access, a business is at a disadvantage.”
That is a particular disadvantage for start-up businesses, Shockley said.
“Seventy-five percent of businesses probably start in a garage somewhere, and it’s those types that you want to be able to grow,” he said.
Shockley said rural areas can offer good schools and land prices, but businesses are still concerned with available technology, which often means dial-up.
“You’ve got somebody in Tokyo buying crab meat from Crisfield,” he said. “It has to be that time is money, you have to download contracts, huge amounts of information.”