Friday, August 15, 2008

Delta Views August 15


August 15, 2008 

It's All About Access

By Pete Johnson

The Wall Street Journal recently published a special section on economic development with this headline: "Success stories: A look at seven places that took different approaches to economic development and came out ahead."

The seven areas on which the newspaper focused included cities such as Kobe, Japan, and Wismar, Germany. Also included was rural Kentucky. The reason? Kentucky was chosen because the state has done groundbreaking work when it comes to providing high-speed Internet access to its rural residents.

At the start of the article, Ann Carrns wrote: "For Jeff Herron, high-speed Internet access is one of the keys to his business success. And the key to his high-speed Internet access is a local nonprofit. Mr. Herron runs a real estate and document retrieval firm in Falmouth, Ky., a rural area near the Ohio border where bad weather often makes roads impassable. He says the recent arrival of fast, affordable Internet service in surrounding Pendleton County means his employees can work at home when wintry weather leaves them stranded, sometimes for days at a time. Mr. Herron says his enterprise owes its success, in part, to ConnectKentucky, a nonprofit with a roughly $2 million annual budget that has worked for the past four years to expand the availability and use of broadband Internet connections in the state's rural areas."

ConnectKentucky began as an organization designed to help small businesses and government better use information technology. It grew through the years to become a statewide effort intent on expanding broadband access for all the state's residents. The organization has been funded 90 percent by the state and 10 percent by the private sector. In many ways, it has been a model public-private partnership, spawning similar efforts in other DRA states such as Alabama and Arkansas.

These various statewide efforts attempt to:

1. Determine the existing broadband infrastructure. It's easier to facilitate access once you know what the needs are. Mapping shows where access isn't available.

2. Educate community leaders on the importance of broadband access and convince them to develop strategic plans for the better use of information technology in their communities.

3. Partner with existing community programs to create the initiatives needed to promote increased Internet use and ownership of computer devices.

Ultimately, these efforts will enhance the capacity of communities to be competitive in the global economy of the 21st century. We simply must convince community leaders that information technology is as important as schools, roads and other amenities of civilization. The future of an area can be vastly improved by harnessing the potential of the Internet.

The drumbeat for economic development has changed. Few jobs in a service economy can be performed without some knowledge of computers. A community that takes on a broadband initiative sends a signal to businesses that it wants to change for the better, is willing to plan for the future and is ready to use technology to make itself more competitive.

A key step is to persuade broadband providers to share information about penetration rates so accurate coverage maps can be created. The interactive maps in Kentucky showed both broadband coverage and population density. That helped the providers identify the areas where it made sense economically to expand.

"Then (ConnectKentucky) organized committees of volunteers from local governments, schools and businesses in each of the state's 120 counties to identify what benefits broadband service would bring to the community and to explain those benefits to the public," Ann Carrns wrote in The Wall Street Journal. "Regional coordinators for ConnectKentucky helped local governments establish their own websites and draft requests for proposals from broadband providers."

Companies such as Microsoft later donated computers that were distributed to students from poor families. Almost 2,000 computers have been distributed in 12 pilot counties in Kentucky. During the past three years, the percentage of households using high-speed Internet service has grown from 24 percent to 44 percent. Based on national growth trends, the "natural" rate would have been only 37 percent without the efforts of ConnectKentucky. That extra 7 percent means almost 300,000 more people are accessing broadband in Kentucky than would have been the case without the efforts of ConnectKentucky. Kentucky, meanwhile, had a 3.1 percent increase in information technology jobs during 2005-06, compared with a national growth rate of 0.1 percent in that sector.

The addition of paved roads and electricity were critical factors in closing the per capita income gap between the rural South and the rest of the country in the years just before and after World War II. Roads remain important. But now we need more than roads. Deployment of broadband in this century is as critical to the future of our region as getting electricity into those rural areas was in the previous century.

The best way to grow a community is to provide its children with a quality of life that will allow them to stay there and start a business. Having access to high-speed Internet gives them that opportunity. Broadband access can be an important tool when recruiting new businesses to an area. It also can be used to improve care in hospitals and improve education.

The Delta Regional Authority, which released its iDelta plan for the region last year, would like to be a unifying force when it comes to information technology. This fits into our congressionally mandated role as a regional planner and coordinator. We want to work with state organizations such as ConnectKentucky to fill the gap. A wave of information technology investment is as necessary for the future of the Delta as were the great highway construction projects of the past.

Pete Johnson of Clarksdale, Miss., is the federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority. He was appointed by President Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2001.

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