Friday, February 10, 2017

Invest in Rural America’s internet infrastructure

One of the most frustrating things about being in a world so completely dominated by the Internet is having inconsistent and limited access to the ‘net which is undoubtedly the most powerful communication, information, and commercial tool ever invented by Man.

Living where I do, we don’t have cable and the over-the-air broadband made available to us is slow and its monthly usage is capped. Because of that, we have to dramatically limit our web browsing -- we cannot watch videos and we try to stay away from downloading documents and software.

While that has an effect on our personal web behaviors (I can’t watch my beloved college hockey team’s games online) and professional activities (my wife saves much of the management of her private practice for when she is at her office), it’s nothing compared to the frustration that must be had by our neighbors.

Within one mile of our home are a grain farmer, a fruit grower who maintains a retail and commercial cold storage facility, and one of the largest dairy farms in the county. Those folks are saddled with the same internet limitations that we have at home.

Operating a plant in a city and knowing how critical high-speed internet has been to how we do things, I can’t fathom how difficult it must be for them to handle the business side of their operations in this day and age of e-commerce an e-control.

How do they market their products? How do they handle transactions with their clients? How do they communicate and share files with suppliers, distributors, banks, and accountants? How do they not get frustrated in the inability to invest in web-based technologies like cameras and other monitoring systems that would serve their farms well?  

Some would say that it comes with the territory of living and doing business in Rural America, that it’s a trade-off. But is it?

Rural America is not backwoods. We don’t live some Spartan, bare-bones existence. At least where we are we have some of the finest in infrastructure…our roads are in tip-top shape, our electrical grid is exceptional, and we have county water serving our properties.

But, that infrastructure market basket is missing something just as critical – the internet, be it in the form of cable, fiber optics, or cellular technologies.

In this era and all those coming after us, having the Internet is just as necessary as having good roads, bridges, and waterways. Just as trade has, is and will be moved across those pieces of infrastructure, trade now moves across -- and always will -- the Internet. It’s an absolutely critical means by which businesses can compete globally.

Because the free market has been so slow to invest in rural Internet access, it will likely take some sort of investment from federal and state governments to provide that access to rural residents and businesses, just as those governments did and do with the other pieces of infrastructure.

What form could that take? It could be tax incentives. It could be elimination -- or even addition -- of regulations. It could be direct investment in and the ownership of the rural systems, something akin to the public power systems that some municipalities have. 

President Trump campaigned at length about the need to invest in America’s infrastructure and it will obviously become a part of his legacy. But, his team, at that time, did not consider rural Internet access as a part of the investment package. That mindset has to change, especially given his vague promises to provide better broadband to the Rural Americans who voted him in.    

This is not a problem unique to my neighborhood; it’s bigger than us. Gasport is just one community of thousands facing such struggles. In New York alone, more than 100,000 people don’t have access to wired internet providers, while two-thirds of a million people in the Empire State have access to just one provider. If you look at America as a whole, only 55 percent of rural residents can achieve a connection of 25 megabits per second (the FCC’s minimum broadband threshold that was announced in 2015), while 94 percent of urban residents can connect at that rate.

With a chasm that vast it will be difficult to close that gap, but somehow we have to, and with a sense of urgency, too. Rural America’s poverty rate of 18 percent is 3 percent higher than Metropolitan America’s rate and it’s growing. By investing in the latest and greatest communications networks, those areas can be given the chance to turn around their fortunes by starting or growing businesses in a world where e-commerce is king.  

From the 13 February 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers

No comments: