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By William Hatcher
To succeed in the nation’s new economic realities, where creative class jobs are being pulled to localities with technology and talent, communities need to improve their broadband access and e-government presence. According to a November 2013 Bloomberg article, the large web-based retailer Amazon has partnered with the U.S. Postal Service to offer same day delivery on Sundays. Twitter and Facebook are now publicly traded companies, with the latter having billions of users worldwide. While some cities are making advances in information technology infrastructure, an alarmingly number of our communities lack high-speed Internet access at affordable rates and have web presences that are stuck in the 20th century.
As reported in a Daily Yonder story on state-by-state rural broadband availability, high-speed, broadband Internet service needs to have download speeds of at least 3 megabits per second (mpbs). The physical infrastructure for high-speed Internet is the first step. The service also needs to be affordable for citizens to purchase in order for communities to enjoy the full benefits of high-speed Internet.
E-government is a more complex issue. David Coursey and Donald Norris, in a 2008 Public Administration Review article titled “Models of E-Government: Are They Correct? An Empirical Assessment,” said the term has been used to include a wide-range of governance issues, such as a community having a strong web presence, online bill pay and online communication portals. Our communities, especially rural ones, face a host of problems in attempting to ensure this infrastructure exist within their area.
Broadband access has improved in our nation, but it is still limited compared to many other industrial democracies. This is partly a function of our nation’s large geographic size. Broadband access is easier to ensure in small areas with high population densities. While a large majority of our citizens live in urban areas, large parts of our nation’s population is widely dispersed, making the laying of broadband cable and other physical infrastructure an expensive venture.
Given this, our rural citizens lack the broadband access of their urban counterparts. As mentioned in the Daily Yonder, the Federal Communication Commission reported that 23.7% of rural residents do not have Internet access with download speeds of at least 4 mpbs; while only 1.8% of urban residents lack this basic speed. When you couple the density problem with lax regulation by government, the cost of broadband in this nation, even in urban areas, is significantly higher than in other democracies. An October 2013 article in BBC News Magazine noted that in South Korea, on average, broadband access is slightly less than $20 per month. However, in the U.S. the average cost is over $80 per month. And the real kicker is that our broadband speeds are slower than the speeds in South Korea.
What can be done to solve this problem? The answer is pretty straightforward. We need, through government, to invest more in broadband access. The national government can offer more financial support for the start-up cost of offering high-speed Internet in communities. However, local governments really need to take the lead on this issue. In fact, many of our local governments need to get into the business of offering affordable Internet to their citizens.
In the modern economy, high-speed Internet is a needed utility, just like water and electricity. It is a toll good—one that is for the common good but can be restricted to individuals that pay for it. Government has a strong role in ensuring the efficient provision of these goods. The municipalities that have gotten into the broadband businesses tend to have reasonable rates for the service and higher speeds. For instance, USA Today recently reported that Lafayette, Louisiana operates 800 miles of fiber-optic cable Internet that deliver speeds up to 100 mpbs for their citizens. For $35 per month, citizens can purchase access with speeds up to 15 mpbs.
In past columns, I have talked about Chattanooga, Tennessee and the effort by their leaders to build robust information infrastructure in their community. The city’s effort is helping to fuel information-based jobs in its economy. By ensuring access for their citizens and businesses to high-speed Internet, these municipalities and ones like them will be competitive in the future. Local governments and development-related organizations also need to strengthen their web presences and e-government offerings. While one can become friends with somebody across the global on social media portals, the condition of many of our municipal and county websites make it very difficult for citizens to communicate with their local governments.
As stated by Kelly Edmiston in a 2003 American Review of Public Administration article titled “State and Local E-Government, Prospects and Challenges,” having a strong web presence and a certain level of e-government offerings has the potential to help strengthen the governance of a community but also its economy. First, potential new residents and businesses often seek out information about their new home by examining its web presence. If a community has a website that is stuck in the 1990’s, then potential newcomers may keep looking. Second, e-government can make it easier for citizens to complete applications and other forms in order to do business in a community. Lastly, e-government may have the potential to increase public involvement in a community. In general, this may improve local democracy and strengthen levels of trust. For community developers, this may allow for more inclusion on the creation of community visions. Greater community buy-in, through increased trust and communication, will help communities implement their visions.
In November 2013, the National Journal wrote that in today’s economy workers with talent are being pulled to cities that have the infrastructure, along with amenities, to compete in the information, creative landscape. Public administration has a role to help local communities secure financing and develop effective administrative practices to ensure citizens have access to affordable broadband and e-government offerings.