• WisBusiness

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Broadband's importance to rural America gets airing in Washington


By Tom Still
WASHINGTON, D.C. – At first glance, it’s an unlikely collection of people: Ranchers, farmers, economic development professionals, technologists and small business owners, all descending on the nation’s capital to talk about an issue that might easily get lost among other priorities in Congress.

That issue is improving broadband connections – essentially, high-speed internet connectivity for voice, data and more – in parts of the country that often lack good connections today. For much of rural Wisconsin and similar regions nationwide, adequate broadband service can make the difference between prosperity and stagnation.

A group called “Broadband WORKS for Rural America” has brought that message to Capitol Hill at a time when creating small businesses is crucial to America’s economic growth. Representatives from about 20 states, including Wisconsin, are taking note that U.S. broadband connectivity remains somewhat middle-of-the-road among the world’s developed nations – and that rural America is less connected than the country as a whole.

Wisconsin ranks 43rd among the 50 states when it comes to high-speed Internet access, according to a recent report by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. A major reason for the state’s lackluster ranking is access in rural Wisconsin, where many telecom providers are trying to swap their historic commitment to land-line service to investments in broadband.

Much like other communities across the United States, rural Wisconsin would benefit from enhanced broadband connections. Here are some reasons why:

* Broadband allows small businesses, which account for most new jobs in Wisconsin, to expand their markets and customer bases to regional, national and even international levels through greater use of eCommerce sales channels.

* It creates more opportunities for creation of businesses related to information technology, one of the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. economy. Wisconsin is 21st among the states in information technology jobs, according to the latest CyberStates survey, and could grow even more in development of software, mobile applications and Internet solutions.

* It enables hospitals and clinics to make better use of telemedicine. Examples include rapidly locating digital medical records and medical images that can be more easily transmitted to doctors or clinics in remote locations. This can save lives and improve health.

* It provides rural Wisconsin residents with greater access to higher education or continued education through “distance learning” systems. These systems themselves can become an export industry for Wisconsin, which has a strong “K-through-gray” education structure and companies engaged in educational software. Why not sell that expertise to others?

* It makes rural Wisconsin more likely to attract large data centers, which are the information storage citadels of today’s IT-driven businesses and corporations. Such centers are essential to Wisconsin’s financial services and health care sectors.

* It will enhance tourism. Wisconsin is a prime tourism destination, but some in the industry find themselves losing opportunities to book sales if their broadband service is slow or erratic.

* It will enhance public safety by allowing more rapid response to emergencies, whether those are medical emergencies, police calls or events related to natural disasters.

So, what’s the message to Congress? Stay the course and give rural America a chance to attract and retain 21st century jobs. While the Obama administration has set a broad national goal of universal broadband deployment by 2016, plans to reach the 30 percent of Americans who can’t tap into broadband are still emerging. Federal grants to rural telecoms have helped, but it will largely be a private-sector endeavor driven by society’s rapid transition into wireless communications.

To that point, it’s a message about clearing old regulatory hurdles and not creating new barriers.

Access to broadband can create jobs for young, well-educated Wisconsin workers who might otherwise need to leave rural Wisconsin to find work. Broadband works – especially if it links rural America with the global economy.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

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