Thursday, July 17, 2008

Broadband USA!

Natural gas is available in Lewisburg. Many residents can have it piped to their houses, but I live beyond the reach of the natural gas lines. So, without spending coin for infrastructure updates, I have no choice but to run all my heating systems on electricity.

About a hundred years ago, electricity might not have been an option. Then, there was a movement under way to run electric transmission wires to every home in the United States—being a relatively new convenience, electricity wasn’t available everywhere. Electricity was least available in rural communities: it cost far more per customer to run wires through sparsely-populated areas than it did to run wires through cities. Electric companies needed special motivation to run fifteen miles of cable that would service only three customers.

Today we’re dealing with a new “wiring” challenge: In rural communities, many households do not have affordable broadband access to the Internet. In a city, you might have five or more choices in broadband carriers, and they compete for your business through price wars, discounted installation, and other incentives. In a rural area, there is only one certain broadband option—satellite—and it’s generally crazy expensive compared to more conventional old-fashioned solutions (when they’re available).

I participate in an organization called the Susquehanna Valley Broadband Advisory Committee sponsored by SEDA-COG (the Susquehanna Economic Development Association Council of Governments). The purpose of this committee is to promote the delivery (availability) of affordable broadband internet access to every resident of the rural Pennsylvania area SEDA-COG serves.

There are pockets of houses scattered on remote hillsides throughout central Pennsylvania. Many folks who live in them want high speed internet access, but can’t afford the satellite services. On the other hand, there are still folks who don’t have internet access… and some who do have it will never budge from dial-up.

So, our committee explores the dynamics that drive reliance on the internet. What motivates people to want high-speed access? What motivates people altogether to disregard connectivity? We met yesterday and agreed that local government is a major stumbling block to the spread of broadband access; older government officials have no use for information technology. When they grudgingly accept its use in their organizations, they don’t want to share the benefits—or the information—with other agencies. We also discussed the challenges of employing recent college graduates who take technology for granted: how can traditional companies (and rural PA is rife with traditional companies) work with employees who command tools their managers have never even imagined?

As much as I love the isolation of rural living, I crave the intellectual stimulation you tend to get from working with people in information technology. It’s a boost to spend half a day with this group that is dedicated to advancing the community through IT. I look forward to next month’s meeting.

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