Archive for January 9th, 2006

What “Broadband” means for Indiana

broadbandWhenever a major telecommunications bill is introduced in the Legislature, too many people tend to tune it out because they feel the issue is just “too complicated.”

This year, Senator Brandt Hershman (R-Wheatfield) has filed SB 245, probably the most far-reaching telecommunications bill Indiana has seen. I will discuss that bill more specifically at a later time, but you can read a good overview on the fiscal impact statement here (pdf).

In the meantime, the article “Let There Be Wi-Fi” in the latest Washington Monthly provides an excellent primer on broadband issues that anyone can understand.

The thrust of the article is that broadband should be thought of as the 21st century equivalent of electricity:

Most people know broadband as an alternative to their old, slow dial-up Internet connection… But broadband is about much more than checking your email or browsing on EBay. In the near future, telephone, television, radio and the web all will be delivered to your home via a single broadband connection.

Calling American broadband “the slowest, most expensive and least reliable in the developed world,” the article points out that the US has fallen to 16th in the world in broadband penetration, while citizens of countries like Japan and South Korea have access to speeds ten times as fast as what is available in the US, and for half the price.

Even the US definition of Broadband – 200kbps – is 500 times slower than the new Japanese standards.

What does this mean for Indiana?

It means we will lose out on business opportunities to develop new commercial applications, products, and services designed for this communication. It means doctors in our hospitals will not have access to world-class diagnostic tools. It means our students will be learning obsolete technology. It means Indiana businesses that want to remain competitive in the global economy will have to pack up and move elsewhere.

In the 1880’s, when electricity was first available, it was marketed by private utilities as a luxury for the rich, big industry and major urban areas. Smaller towns who could not attract utility investment faced serious threats to their viability:

…communities were left with the choice of forming a government-owned utility or being left in the dark. Even big cities like Detroit built municipal power systems to cut prices and extend service. In response, private utility companies responded with a massive propaganda and misinformation campaign that attacked advocates of municipal power as “un-American,” “Bolshevik,” and “an unholy alliance of radicals.”

Indiana needs to set an aggressive broadband policy that guarantees universal access to high-speed data transmission. As with the Rural Electric Cooperatives that were formed for universal electrification, our policy should encourage every avenue of access for Hoosiers - including municipal broadband systems.


The article cites the small Indiana town of Scottsburg’s Citizen’s Communication Corp. as an example of how we can successfully accomplish this goal:

When three major employers in Scottsburg, Ind. (pop. 6,040), threatened to leave town because they didn’t have the communications infrastructure needed to deal with their customers and suppliers, the town’s mayor, Bill Graham, went to the major cable and telephone companies for help.

They told him that extending high-speed broadband services to Scottsburg wasn’t profitable enough.

So the city decided to build a municipal wireless “cloud” using transmitters placed on water and electric towers that reach more than 90 percent of the surrounding county’s 23,000 residents. “Scottsburg didn’t wake up one morning and say, we want to be in the broadband business,” Graham told PBS. “Scottsburg had business and industry that was going to leave our community because what we had was not fast enough.” Scottsburg’s investment worked—the employers stayed.

Broadband is the new essential public utility. Access to broadband can bring prosperity to our communities, and those without access will certainly suffer for it.

“Just as with the roads of old,” Dianah Neff, Philadelphia’s chief information technology officer, recently told BusinessWeek, “if broadband bypasses you, you become a ghost town.”

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