Opinion Pieces

The role of infrastructure in bridging the broadband divide

While there is unending debate on the means to pay and share the cost of construction of transportation in our nation – federal government or states, municipalities or private sector – there is no debate that the economic success and national security of America is dependent on a stable, efficient and pervasive intermodal system. Once again, we are at a juncture where government must decide on the means for funding infrastructure improvements and development to support the continued success of our economy. Most of the discussion has focused on surface transportation, rail and air. I believe that our innovative edge, rationalization of systems and connectivity of goods and services as well as supply and demand are incomplete until the last mile of broadband access reaches rural America and underserved urban areas. That last access cannot be accomplished solely by the private sector; for national economic and security issues Congress must take on the task.

Historically, Congress has had to grapple with its role in the growth of American infrastructure. In its infancy, the federal government recognized the need to develop a comprehensive system of roads. The expansion of internal trade in a growing nation necessitated and a Supreme Court decision in Gibbons v Ogden empowered Congress to appropriate and regulate interstate commerce – thus allowing a potentially cohesive strategic national plan to support the differing sectors of American commerce and security interests. Later, the trauma of the War of 1812 showed the security imperative of water fortifications and an inland canal system for commercial traffic which drew the additional attention of Congress. The Industrial Age and the growing agricultural sector required connection through rail, bridge and canals – spurring massive development in rail which in short order supplanted canals, turnpikes and steamboats. By the late 1800’s, most construction in rail line was no longer simply to create rail but to develop efficiencies and minimize shipping time and costs through the West and East ports, industrial Northeast and agricultural South and Midwest. The country safeguarded its national security, advanced commerce and created wealth, innovation and jobs.

A Pew Research Center study shows that populations continuing to lag behind in internet adoption include people with low incomes, seniors, the less-educated and households in rural areas. This statistic is important because many studies are now attempting to quantify the true economic impact of lost broadband deployment in those sectors. A June 2007 report from the Brookings Institution found that for every one percentage point increase in broadband penetration in a state, employment is projected to increase by 0.2 percent to 0.3 percent per year. For the entire U.S. private nonfarm economy, the study projected an increase of about 300,000 jobs with greater penetration of broadband.

The ability to access high speed, affordable internet creates jobs and also allows students to more effectively participate in school. I have seen far too many students on the island of St. Croix (which ironically has the greatest broadband capacity of anyplace in the U.S. outside of New York City with its Global Crossing fiber-optic hub, but lacks substantial last mile of connectivity) sitting on the sidewalk in front of libraries with laptops after 8:00 pm, attempting to finish assignments. Families in rural stretches and children in poor urban areas engage in the search for broadband that keep them at a disadvantage and denies all Americans their talents. 

Additionally, a 2015 study done through Cornell University and funded by the National Agricultural and Rural Development Policy Center, found that nonmetropolitan counties that had high levels of broadband adoption from 2010 had significantly higher growth in median household income. Greater connectivity creates smart irrigation systems for farmers, additional software development jobs in rural areas, and homework ability for disadvantaged urban and rural children.

For a divided nation (both economically and ideologically) which appears to be increasing in its division, transportation modernization is vital as an economic driver and security enhancer. As noted by historian David McCullough in “The Great Bridge,” for “a nation so recently torn apart by civil war, a bridge was a particularly appealing symbol.” The bridging of the broadband divide is not only an appealing symbol but vital component in rending our tears and building our nation.