States move to expand broadband access

Despite the potential economic and social benefits of broadband network access, there remains a digital divide between urban and rural communities in the availability of high-speed networks, and state governments are taking a variety of approaches to address the problem, according to a report by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices.

According to studies cited in the report, broadband adoption averages 73 percent of Internet households in urban areas of the country but just 55 percent in rural areas. A California task force studying the issue found that although 96 percent of California residences have broadband access, availability is as low as 57 percent in some rural areas, and 1.4 million residents have no access to high-speed networks.

'Challenges remain in ensuring universal access to broadband services, as providers do not reach every person across the country,' concluded the report titled 'State Efforts to Expand Broadband Access.'

A number of states have created task forces to evaluate the status of broadband deployment and consider possible regulatory changes to encourage its expansion to underserved areas, some are offering tax incentives to service providers and consumers to encourage infrastructure development and increase demand for the service, and some states have established dedicated funding to support infrastructure development.

High-speed Internet access can spur economic development in a community and provide services such as telemedicine and remote access to medical specialists. A 2007 study by the Brookings Institution estimated that a 1 percent increase in broadband penetration in a state could yield a 0.2 or 0.3 percent increase in employment.

Broadband access today is typically provided by DSL, cable modem, fiber-optic cable to the home or a variety of wireless technologies including satellite sevice.

'According to the [Federal Communications Commission], more than 99 percent of ZIP codes in the United States enjoy access to high-speed Internet,' the report says. 'Many of these areas, however, are covered by satellite service, which is much slower and more expensive than other broadband technologies such as cable or DSL.'

And FCC figures on broadband penetration could be misleading. The FCC threshold for broadband is set at 200 Kbps, a transfer rate many consider inadequate today, when speeds of 1.5 Mbps are considered a reasonable minimum.

To encourage development, Mississippi has instituted a 10-year tax credit program of 5 to 15 percent and a sales tax exemption ranging from 50 percent to 100 percent on purchase and deployment of networking equipment, with the percentage increasing in underserved rural areas. Missouri is offering a 40 percent tax credit for three years on purchase of high-speed telecommunications equipment and network construction. To increase demand for broadband services, Georgia is offering tax credits of as much as $1,200 to employees participating in telecommuting programs.

California has established a two-year, $100 million fund to offer 40 percent matching grants for deployment in underserved areas, and Vermont has authorized issuance of $40 million worth of state-backed bonds to fund construction of systems with a goal of making 1.5 Mbps connections available to all households in the state by 2010.

According to the study, states offering tax incentives for broadband deployment as of 2007 included Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, Oregon, Virginia and Wisconsin.

States with other initiatives to encourage deployment include California, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont and Virginia.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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