For years, most residents of rural Ralls County, Missouri, surfed the Web on dial-up or slow wireless connections. Cut off from high-speed broadband available elsewhere, streaming video and downloading large files were off limits.

That’s about to change, as a local cooperative is installing direct fiber connections to homes throughout the county. Residents with the new service now enjoy speeds of 10 to 20 megabits per second — faster than some homes in big cities.

“It’s just night and day from what they’re used to seeing,” said Lynn Hodges, economic development manager for Ralls County Electric Cooperative. “They’re just blown away by the speeds.”

High-speed Internet plays a key role as regions compete to attract employers and encourage participation in today’s global economy. Many states stepped up efforts in the past year and set ambitious goals to wire more areas — particularly in rural localities — so they don’t fall behind. Communities like Ralls County are now finally plugging in, bridging the digital divide that exists throughout much of the country.

Still, the FCC estimates that 18 million Americans reside in areas lacking broadband access, putting entire populations at an economic disadvantage.

Click on the map to find county-by-county average broadband speeds. (Link redirects to

Deploying broadband in rural areas presents a challenge for providers, often with a hefty price tag. Hodges said crews have encountered 2,000-foot drops when installing fiber. Other times, homes in farming communities span miles apart.

Federal Recovery Act grants fund much of the newer broadband infrastructure upgrades, with more than $7 billion underwriting nearly 300 projects. States are pitching in, partnering with providers to widen broadband availability.

Hodges estimates that Ralls County Electric Cooperative spends an average of $3,000 to $4,000 per home to install a fiber connection. Without $19 million in federal grants and loans, the cooperative could never afford the upgrades, he said.

Missouri’s Broadband Expansion

To expand broadband access throughout the state, Missouri established public-private partnerships with Ralls County Electric Cooperative and other telecoms serving rural areas.

Gov. Jay Nixon announced the initiative in 2009, pledging to deliver broadband to 95 percent of residents by the end of 2014. In all, $311 million in stimulus grants, state money and private investment will fund various projects.

As part of the initiative, representatives from governments, schools, public safety and other areas have formed regional commissions to develop plans for each community. Damon Porter, director of the MoBroadbandNow initiative, said more than 100 broadband providers are participating statewide.

“These teams are coming together and really, for the first time, talking about broadband and how it can have a positive impact on the community,” he said.

Increased Web speeds open many doors for communities. Doctors interact remotely with patients. Students download audiobooks in seconds. Farmers sell goods in real time.

Porter said he expects most of Missouri’s broadband projects to be complete by 2013.

State Initiatives

A slew of other states are pursing similar initiatives – linking Internet providers to community leaders.

Eight governors referenced broadband or fiber networks in recent State of the State addresses.

In February, Ohio Gov. John Kasich announced plans to spend $8.1 million revamping the state’s existing 1,850-mile fiber-optic network, OARnet. The plan calls for a tenfold increase in download speeds, expanding the network’s capacity to 100 Gbps.

John Conley, chief technology officer for the Ohio Board of Regents, said companies can also tap into the state’s central network hub to test products.

Much of Ohio’s network centers around college campuses. Conley points out Facebook, Google and numerous other Internet startups launched around universities.

The same day Kasich unveiled the plan, a similar project was announced in California. The Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California, Pacific Northwest Gigapop, and Internet2 consortium will share connections on a 100 Gbps-network, extending from Los Angeles to Seattle. The network, partially funded by a federal grant, is expected to be up and running this summer.

Earlier this year, Indiana announced plans to boost its own high-speed network linking Indiana University (IU) and Purdue University to a national research network in Chicago.

IU was well aware of planned network upgrades in other states. David Jent, IU’s associate vice president for networks, said top university administrators view the network and its 100-gigabit speeds as essential to remaining competitive in securing grants and attracting students.

“We think that providing the right amount of capacity ahead of the need is important,” he said. “If you wait to react, you’ll be behind.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also proposed allocating $25 million in March to extend broadband access to the Adirondacks and other remote areas of the state. The plan calls for lawmakers to shift money from an economic development fund and approve partnerships with telecoms.

All states report data twice annually to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which compiles information for the National Broadband Map.

States’ interest in broadband isn’t likely to slow anytime soon.

“They’ve all been able to realize the economic value and return on investment,” said James Ward, a committee director for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In some cases, Internet providers have taken the lead role in building new networks.

Google has begun laying the foundation for a state-of-the-art fiber network crisscrossing Kansas City, Mo. and Kansas City, Kan. When complete, residents are expected to enjoy speeds 100 times faster than typical broadband connections.