Good Article in WASHPO by Cecilia Kang on Rural Broadband

While I was sorry to see the Business Section drop out of the Washington Post, I am glad if that contributed to this piece by Cecilia Kang getting on the front page.

With $7.2 billion in broadband stimulus money, we have had the big debate over whether we need broadband stimulus at all, at what speed, and what technology. Opinions vary along a spectrum that runs from “Og like cave drawing! Cave drawing always good enough for Og! Who need stoopid ‘Interwebs’ anyways” to “If the U.S. doesn’t deploy 1 gigabit symterical fiber to every home by NEXT WEEK we will end up a pathetic nation of helpless digital ‘have nots’ enslaved by the Fiber Lords of Japan and South Korea.” Central to this debate is the question of economic development. The Fiber For Everyone by next week crowd argue that without broadband access the only jobs available to us in the global economy will be asking “do you want fries with that” in 10 different languages and figuring out how to make change for Euros or Yen. The Og’s of the world maintain that the economic development numbers are grossly exaggerated and our real worry is whether we will run out of charcoal for cave drawings before the next mammoth hunt.

Kang’s article is good because it actually probes a little deeper than the usual line two opinions up against each other and pretend that’s “reporting” that we see so much of these days. It does contrast two towns in rural VA that tried to use Broadband to develop their economy: Lebanon and Rose hill. Lebanon attracted two major businesses that created 700 new jobs. A major success for broadband. In Rose Hill, only 1/3 of the residents signed up and the benefits they enjoyed are much more modest — certainly not transformative as they were in Lebanon.

This is where the debate usually ends. Happily, the article goes on to explore some of the other differences between Lebanon and Rose Hill that illustrate why things turned out differently — notably Lebanon’s commitment to create a training and education center so that local residents could actually take advantage of the new technology. As I’ve said before, what I like most about the broadband stimulus package is that it moves beyond connectivity for its own sake to the concept of a broadband ecology, where high-speed connectivity is a necessary but not sufficient element in exploiting the potential of this technology to vastly improve people’s lives. No one these days would argue that we do not need electricity to every home in America because we all get along without it when the grid goes down. But no one would argue that all we need to do is lay in power lines and jobs will magically spring up out of the wall sockets.

So my hat off to Kang for writing an article that will, hopefully get people to think a little deeper than the simple “binary fallacy” (that a thing is either totally true or totally false) that so dominates modern discourse. As regular readers know, I am a big supporter of the broadband stimulus because I believe that, done right, it can be part of a powerful transformative change for the economy as a whole. But that requires acknowledging that this is a significant and complex undertaking, not solved by laying a bunch of fiber lines or putting up a bunch of towers and proclaiming “mission accomplished.” Perhaps if we had a little more reporting like this, we would see more reasonable expectations — and a more reasoned public debate.

Stay tuned . . .

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