- The Washington Times - Monday, July 13, 2009

Beckley, W.Va., boasts of its low crime rate, lofty plateaus of forest and farmland, access to interstate highways, national parks, tourism, technology and transportation.

(Corrected paragraph:) But according to Beckley’s Mayor Emmett Pugh, what it doesn’t have enough of is broadband - and he is going to do something about that.

The Obama administration’s stimulus package has allotted $7.2 billion for broadband access, and Mr. Pugh and representatives from another region of West Virginia have joined together to submit an application to receive up to $50 million of the stimulus funds.

Mr. Pugh and the city fathers believe broadband — particularly to support school systems — is the best way to make sure rural America doesn’t fall behind the big cities.

“Schools are the foundation of a lot of the smaller communities. And access in these schools will not only provide an educational benefit to children who use that every day, but also for the residents in these communities,” said Mr. Pugh.

“We may not be able to get ultrabroadband access to every house, but to a school, to a computer lab, we certainly want to be able to extend that to people who don’t have it,” he said.

Mr. Pugh noted that in urban areas around the country, access to broadband is not hard to find. However, in the outlying areas, services like DSL and cable have limited ranges, especially when service providers look at the penetration rates and costs to service, which prevent many providers from extending into rural areas.

If awarded the money, Mr. Pugh intends to skip broadband and go to ultrabroadband, a technology that has the capacity to reach speeds double that of normal broadband. This increased broadband data access will “be a big benefit to southern West Virginia during this economic development project” because it will allow individuals and companies to “get ahead of the curve, instead of behind it.”

Penetration rates and costs to service are a factor for broadband providers that require cables and access lines, but there are other ways to achieve broadband access.

WildBlue Communications Inc. (“WildBlue”), a privately owned satellite-broadband provider, aims to deliver “affordable two-way broadband Internet access via satellite to virtually any home and small business throughout rural America,” according to the corporation.

WildBlue representatives realize that rural populations are often at a technological disadvantage because of their distance from urban and industrial centers, making it even more expensive to extend infrastructure out of the cities into less densely populated regions.

“But we don’t care what the terrain is like, or what the population density is; it’s irrelevant to us. Each household costs the same to serve, so we can reach everyone, even the most remote subscriber,” said Lisa Scalpone, WildBlue’s vice president of legal and governmental affairs.

However, satellite broadband can be quite pricey, as one satellite can cost about $500 million to build, launch and insure. Ms. Scalpone and her colleagues are hoping that this initial cost won’t deter administration officials from granting funding, as broadband satellite technology has the potential to service rural areas — such as those outside of Beckley — across the country.

The National Broadband Strategy Symposium, presented by Internet Innovation Alliance in Washington, examined the steps necessary, and the many reasons, to bring broadband access to unserved and rural communities in the United States. Mainly, it focused on the opportunities created by broadband to extend information outside of concentrated areas of population.

Three of the most pressing reasons for national broadband access, as discussed by a panel of experts as well as keynote speakers, included its role in health care, education and the growth of small businesses.

Carl Taylor, director of the Center for Strategic Health Innovation at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine, explained that the “currently disconnected health system in the United States has the potential to improve dramatically” by using broadband Internet access to connect an individual to his or her doctor if an office or hospital visit simply isn’t possible.

For the very rural population of America, the closest hospital or best doctors may be hours away. If a rural user is able to connect to an online patient network and directly consult a specialized doctor, Mr. Taylor explained, he will be able to report his own health conditions and keep his doctor updated on his medical status without having to necessarily undergo a physical examination.

Of course, such online communication would not eliminate the need for patient-doctor contact in all situations, but it would at least establish ongoing communication between the two parties when geographically separated.

Ron Packard, chief executive officer of K12 Inc., a curriculum developer that provides online learning for grades K-12 primarily through programs in full-time public and private schools and worldwide through the K12 online private school.

Mr. Packard explained that, “when we look at who comes to these virtual schools, it’s very interesting because it turns out we have a disproportionate number of kids who are rural.… And the reason is quite simple. If you’re living rurally, sometimes these families are going 30 to 40 miles just to drive to school each day.

“So all of a sudden, you can now bring the school to the child, rather than bring the child to the school. We have kids in Idaho, for example, that are snowed in and can’t get to school four months of the year,” Mr. Packard said.

Mr. Packard also explained that, “if you’re a rural high school in Mississippi, you’re not going to be able to get a certified physics teacher in that school. In fact, you may not even get enough kids to even take physics, where it’s very uneconomical to run a physics course for three kids. But with online learning you can now amalgamate those numbers across many schools and you can bring in physics professors, physics teachers, to every child in the United States.”

As all of the opportunities created by broadband are brought to the attention of the Federal Communications Commission, advocacy groups and professionals continue to vocalize the importance of broadband access for the success of the United States’ technological development.

Such groups and professionals have made it their task to address the necessity of making broadband more accessible across the country, so that the FCC can properly allocate stimulus funds to broadband providers for research and expansion in matching the United States’ broadband access to that of other developed nations.

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