Who Will Build the Bridge Across the Digital Divide?

By Don Willmott

Is a broadband connection a right or a privilege? I’m not sure, but I do know that getting more Americans within range of fast Internet access is a goal being pushed by both the public and private sectors, and making it happen is going to make jobs happen too.

At the end of March U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke announced ten investments totaling $63 million from stimulus funds to "help bridge the technological divide, boost economic growth, create jobs, and improve education and healthcare across the country" by increasing broadband access and adoption in more than a dozen states. (You can read the details here.) The biggest check, $32.2 million, went to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, which will deploy 550 miles of new aerial fiber-optic cable and 59 microwave towers covering 15,000 square miles across three states. That’s half of the entire Navajo Nation. The last-mile wireless services at speeds between 1 and 3 Mbps will come from Commnet Wireless.

What’s just as impressive as the scope of the projects is the number of total applications that came in: 1,800 requests totaling $19 billion were received. That’s some incredible pent-up demand. There’s definitely a sense out there that the digital divide, be it rural vs. urban or inner city vs. fancy suburb, is real and unfair. There’s also a sense that the arrival of WiFi can somehow magically revitalize neighborhoods or even entire cities like so much fairy dust.

But I’m not convinced yet. If a citywide WiFi cloud could really work that kind of magic, then all the municipal WiFi schemes that have been floated would have been implemented rather than abandoned. It’s tough to wire an entire city, and there’s no one successful formula. Contracting it out to private providers hasn’t worked in great part because the providers find they can’t do it economically. But when cities try to do it themselves … well, let’s just say you probably don’t want the government to be on the other end of your tech support call.

What may be the most effective idea is to do what many of the winning proposals, including that of the Navajo Nation, suggest: to concentrate on delivering broadband to the places that can help the largest possible number of people get things done: libraries, hospitals, schools, local government offices, social service centers, and the like.

Interestingly, the digital divide is not about slow vs. fast Internet. More than 90 percent of Americans who have home access have broadband. It’s more about having the Internet or not having it at all. But globally speaking, even the broadband we do have stinks, with an average speed of 3.8 megabits per second. If only we could all live in Korea, where the world’s fastest broadband achieves 11.7 Mbps, or even Latvia, where it runs at 6.2 Mbps. The U.S. is currently 22nd worldwide in broadband speed.

So I see two opportunities for IT job growth here:

  1. To help bring the Internet to those places, both urban and rural, where it doesn’t have a toehold;
  2. To help speed the whole thing up. How many new innovations, new companies, and new employees will it take to get everyone wired? And how many new innovations, new companies, and new employees will it take to crank up our speed until the Koreans are eating our dust? Just as the advent and explosion of cell phone use created new industries and hundreds of thousands of jobs, so will this push for ubiquitous and fast broadband delivered either in wired or wireless fashion. Infrastructure isn’t always sexy, but it’s what comes first.

Maybe that’s where you want to be.

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