During the month of October, Town Square Delaware will be hosting a discussion on Jobs & The Economy, featuring written op-ed pieces and Q&As with Delaware’s business, labor and government leaders.
Not too many years ago, a discussion of upgrading infrastructure to foster business growth would have revolved around the topics of transportation, water lines and sewer service. In today’s world, the availability of affordable, high-capacity Internet connectivity is just as important.
In national studies, Delaware often is cited as a leader in high-speed Internet access with broadband penetration approaching 100-percent. But this is highly misleading. In many rural areas of Kent, Sussex and even New Castle counties, residents have no broadband Internet access via cable or fiber-optic lines. The only high-speed options available to these homeowners are via cellular networks or satellite. While such potentially high-cost options may be suitable for consumer use, they are are limiting for small businesses.
A lot of small business start-ups begin in the home. I constantly receive calls from constituents in my Sussex County district who have an idea for a small business venture, but are stymied by a lack of high-speed Internet access.
The problem is one of economics. It costs cable and telecommunications companies thousands of dollars per mile to lay cable or fiber optic lines – capital costs they are unlikely to recoup in rural areas where the pool of potential customers is comparatively small.
Delaware is not facing these issues alone. According to remarks delivered by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski earlier this month, roughly 100 million Americans (about a third of the country’s population) are being bypassed by the broadband revolution. Compare that to international competitors like South Korea and Singapore, where broadband adoption rates top 90 percent.
This isn’t the first time our nation has faced this type of barrier to the deployment of revolutionary infrastructure.
In the mid-1930s, electricity was common in urban areas, but the vast majority of rural farms and homes lacked power. Like the issue we face with broadband access today, one of the main hurdles to wiring bucolic settings was cost versus the return on investment. The enactment of Rural Electrification Act of 1936 led to the formation of electric cooperatives, including our own Delaware Electric Cooperative, which today serves more than 75,000 members. The law resulted in the successful wiring of rural America and provided a model that is still being emulated by countries around the world.
I am not suggesting that the nation adopt a 21st Century version of the Rural Electrification Act, but I do support the notion that government can play a limited role in facilitating needed, affordable services to our citizens.
It’s not only small businesses and entrepreneurs that would benefit from the expansion of high-speed broadband access in The First State. Many companies now post job openings exclusively on-line and require prospective applicants to submit their resumes the same way.
Additionally, reasonably-priced broadband access can reduce consumer costs. FCC Chairman Genachowski said one study found that savvy broadband subscribers can save more than $7,000 a year from discounts available exclusively online. Additionally, consumers can take advantage of low-cost alternative phone service if they have a high-speed Internet connection.
We may already have the backbone of what is needed to provide broadband service to nearly all Delaware homes. Writing in The Hill, Carl J. Grivner, chief executive officer of XO Communications, said advances in technology “now make it possible to deliver speeds many times faster and at lower cost than was ever envisioned during the early 2000s when fiber was considered the only mechanism for broadband access.”
He claims his companies and others can deliver speeds up to 45 Mbps over existing copper phone lines. Ironically, he says some phone companies are looking to remove high-maintenance copper lines as more people chose cellular phones over traditional hard-wired units, even though these lines were “originally subsidized by ratepayers.”
Delaware Electric Co-op is also exploring the possibility of using power lines to provide broadband service.
Government can and should play a part, preferably through voluntary partnerships and incentives that will result in the rapid expansion of broadband service to all Delaware homes. This infrastructure would create a fertile environment for the growth of existing businesses as well as foster the development of new businesses and opportunities.
Rep. Ruth Briggs King (R-Georgetown) is a State Representative serving the 37th district.