Monday, January 5, 2009

Bridge work: Legislators strive to help citizens traverse ‘digital divide’

What an unfortunate difference just a few years can make. From a solid standing in the top five less than a decade ago to a shaky 15th place today – that’s how far down in the broadband-access rankings the United States has tumbled.

The crucial work to bridge the “digital divide” in our own state is something legislators will continue to work on during the 2009 legislative session. This divide is the gap – it’s actually more of a chasm – between citizens who have broadband and citizens who don’t.

State Reps. John McCoy and Zack Hudgins recognize that broadband access is a major driver for job creation, economic development, and quality of life in general. McCoy, who chairs the House Technology, Energy & Communications Committee, and Hudgins, a member of this key technology panel, aim to advance Washington’s competitive edge by advancing Washington’s access.

“Dial-up Internet service just doesn’t cut it,” McCoy emphasizes. “Delivering high-speed access to thousands more Washington citizens is one of our biggest continuing challenges. Stronger access means creating the stronger education system we need to launch lasting, high-quality economic development.” Further, he adds, new technologies and Web applications such as telemedicine, telecommuting, and online education usually require higher bandwidths.

McCoy and Hudgins worked last session to help win support for a strong broadband-access measure. The legislation promotes development of a strategy for deploying high-speed Internet access across the state, particularly in underserved areas. State agencies are working with other public and private stakeholders that have a say-so in local community development and planning.

The 2008 measure is an important step toward identifying underserved and unserved areas. In crafting the bill, lawmakers enlisted input from the Communications Workers of America, the Progressive States Network, and industry representatives.

“The benefits of increasing high-speed Internet access aren’t limited to improving educational and economic-development opportunities,” Hudgins says. “We also stand to improve health care, public safety, and citizen participation in the decision-making process of government. We as a society don’t often have the opportunity to change lives as rapidly and as dramatically as we do with increased access to high-speed Internet connections. Our students can visit a museum in Rome, our local businesses can promote their products in Tokyo, and our doctors can diagnose and treat patients hundreds of miles away.”

McCoy says a 2006 survey by the federal Government Accountability Office found that households in rural areas are less likely to subscribe to broadband service than households in urban and suburban areas. Another recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that less than 25 percent of rural households have high-speed Internet access compared with 39 percent of urban and suburban households.

But broadband access certainly isn’t just an urban versus rural issue. The two lawmakers want to make sure that no community is left behind –anywhere.

Hudgins says that “there are neighborhoods in and around Seattle, which is one of the most wired cities in the whole country, where access is limited or non-existent. Some communities of color, minority and immigrant populations, and disabled citizens are struggling with the same lack of service.” He says the legislation includes grants for training and help for underserved and unserved populations.

The legislation approved last session ordered a work group to examine the access issue. The work group was directed to look at where we’re at and find strategies for getting where we need to be. Their recommendations are in their High-Speed Internet Deployment and Adoption Strategy report.