Viewpoints

Viewpoint: Treat broadband as a public utility to tap the global economy

Broadband infrastructure can do more than lure companies to an area; it can connect existing businesses to customers worldwide

By Norm Jacknis

The global downturn may have swept across continents in recent years, but ultimately, all suffering is local. And smaller cities and rural counties have shouldered a heavy share of the burden.

Some local officials in these areas hope to use broadband to try to induce tech companies to build office buildings nearby for employees such as programmers. But it’s hard to justify these projects on a seldom-realized promise of big companies moving lots of jobs.

More important, these officials may be overlooking some essential new ways to market local talent globally. After all, even low-tech goods can be sold over a high-tech network. And, of course, low-tech can still mean skilled, artistic and unique. Nova Scotia, Canada, has helped several residents expand their local businesses by extending broadband into rural communities. A few examples include D & K Bait Bags, Taplin-Weir clarinets, and The Bay Hammock Company. The Internet can be a global marketplace that discovers new uses even for low-tech goods.

It’s not just skilled craftspeople who make a better living. It’s also those who can do regular office jobs but won’t have to drive hours to work in regular offices. With connectivity increasing outside big metropolitan areas, American corporations have discovered an alternative to offshoring jobs. “Onshoring” to less-expensive rural locations in the United States gives the corporations access to people who understand the culture and outlook of their customers better than a foreigner could, while at the same time saving 25 to 40 percent on labor costs. The workers are better off, too, because their wages go a lot further in a rural area than they would in an expensive urban location. BusinessWeek has reported that even in the depths of the recession, 20 companies were offering these onshoring services.

As for knowledge workers, mobile business communications, teleconferencing and other capabilities are enabling many to live and work anywhere they choose. Some are opting for the quiet and beauty of rural locations. But for more rural areas to join the global economy — and experience the many other benefits that come with high-speed connectivity — broadband needs to reach them.

Local officials need to stop thinking of broadband as some weird level of high technology. In reality, it is closer to a “public utility” (public works). Perhaps the best way to build broadband in rural counties is to bundle it with other public works, especially roads. Every road construction or improvement project should include an extra underground pipe. Even if that empty conduit may not yet carry broadband fiber, it will. Without having to dig up roads a second time, the huge savings in construction costs will draw service providers and government agencies sooner rather than later.

The benefits also can be seen in local budgets. Once broadband cable is running through those roads and bridges, the entire infrastructure can be monitored with smart sensors. An older bridge will then signal that it is ailing long before a collapse is imminent (and when the cost of repairs is more bearable than a complete replacement).

Broadband also allows city and county governments to manage their buildings more effectively. Once all the government buildings in Missouri, for example, were finally put on the network, some fairly inexpensive devices enabled state employees to control energy use centrally. The result: $30 million per year in energy savings. The icing on the cake came with additional savings, once other processes — such as security — were centrally controlled.

To facilitate all of this, broadband connectivity must be considered a necessary foundation of a vibrant community, essential to nearly all aspects of societal, cultural and economic development, as well as to citizen engagement. Only then will rural counties and small cities tap into the global economy and secure the thriving future that is their right.

Norm Jacknis is director of San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco’s Internet Business Solutions Group. He may be reached at njacknis@cisco.com.

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