The importance of broadband

July 27, 2011|By DAVID HANLIN

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman is a must read.  I don’t always agree with him, but he challenges me. His book “The World Is Flat:  A  Brief History of the Twenty-First Century” discusses the globalization of the world’s economies.

He uses the term “flatten” to describe how the global economic playing field is being leveled. Much of the world’s job growth in recent years has occurred in India and China.  He argues that much of the growth in these countries would not occur if it weren’t for the ability to link creative and productive people, regardless of their location.  

Many businesses no longer need to be in a specific location. For example, I know of a business with its corporate headquarters in the northeast United States, but the president lives and works in Florida, while its manufacturing plants are in China. We all have experienced customer service calls handled by call centers in India. Freidman reports that some accounting firms are using companies in India to do simple personal and business tax returns, while they focus on more complex financial consulting and difficult tax planning.

Friedman identifies 10 forces that flattened the world. Most of these forces have a common thread — the development of the range, depth and application of the Internet. All this is possible because the Internet is now the core of worldwide communications and information exchange. It is inexpensive, accessible and easy to use.    

The Internet is so important to the modern world that the United Nations recently declared access to it a basic human right. Nearly every American under the age of 65 has an email address. References to the Internet are everywhere. A website on the Internet is almost a sign of legitimacy for any business.  To fully function in today’s world, access to the Internet is a requirement, but it is not sufficient.

As opposed to “dial-up,” a higher level of processing capacity and speed through broadband is what has truly “flattened” the world. It has enabled the creation of jobs, the start of many entrepreneurial ventures and made businesses more efficient.  We no longer go to neighborhood video stores to rent movies.   

Tickets for concerts and professional sporting events can be purchased online. Job listings and searches are now found on the Internet. Some activities like reading newspaper articles are actually enhanced as now video is often available in online editions thus providing additional information. Broadband is even poised to become the method by which television programming is delivered to our homes.  

A July 7 segment on a Washington, D.C.-based NPR radio station focused on broadband in the metro area.  This radio segment differentiated between “access” and “adoption.” Access relates to the physical presence of Internet services. Adoption relates to the level that broadband is actually operating in people’s homes.

Virtually everywhere in the Washington metro area access is not an issue as there are multiple ways to subscribe to broadband Internet. The segment concluded that adoption is the critical issue, however. It focused on parts of the metro area where “adoption rates” were as low as 60 percent. The implication was that a 60-percent adoption rate is a minimum rate below which a community should have some concern. The report went on to conclude that low adoption rates were highly correlated with lower incomes, because the average cost of approximately $51 a month was a barrier for many.

Given the notion that to compete in today’s economic world, adoption of broadband is nearly a requirement and the notion that an adoption rate of less than 60 percent is of concern, in my ideal, our region would have high adoption rates.  

High adoption rates would mean we have a populace that is engaged with the technology. Our businesses would have a workforce that is conversant with the Internet. These skills would increase the value of the workforce to businesses. Some businesses would be attracted here. Our young people would find it easier to find other like-minded people with whom to start their own Internet businesses and provide additional employment opportunities for others. But more than businesses would be affected.  Leslie Conery of the International Society for Technology in Education said, “As teachers become more Internet savvy, the more things they put online. The more they put online and make available to kids, the more important it is that kids have access.”

There is little doubt that adoption in our region is less than 60 percent. One reliable source estimates that the adoption rate in Washington County is as low as 21 percent.  Increasing the local adoption rate would be one strategy, like that in India and China, to creating jobs. Increasing the adoption rate should be one of our community’s most important economic development initiatives.

My next column will address broadband infrastructure and “access.”

• David Hanlin is a Hagerstown resident who writes columns for The Herald-Mail. His email address is

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