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Could Slow Internet Access Hobble WV's Rural Economy?

May 4, 2011

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Without speedy broadband Internet access, small towns will be at a definite economic disadvantage, according to studies of the impact of broadband in rural America.

Policy analyst Paul Miller, who worked on one report for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, says West Virginia ranks near the bottom in both access and numbers of subscribers. Improving both is especially important for a state that's traditionally been isolated by mountains, but which could be jumping forward now, Miller says.

"West Virginia could actually leapfrog ahead, without building roads and bridges, if we had this adequate capacity for broadband."

A large federal grant intended to extend broadband has been the subject of a stifling battle between two large Internet providers, Miller says.

A separate report, issued by the Center for Rural Strategies, a media watchdog group, concludes that in a sink-or-swim world, communities without high-speed access will sink. For a business with narrow Internet bandwidth, says report author Dr. Sharon Strover of the University of Texas, simple business functions become a lot more challenging.

"If you've ever tried to pull up a graphic image on a dial-up connection, you are waiting, conventionally, for a really long time. That means that in order to do something as simple as ordering a part, without broadband, you're at a huge disadvantage."

Strover sees some encouraging signs, however.

"I believe that the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and other federal agencies are taking this far more seriously than they ever did. The money that the stimulus funding pumped into broadband should help."

The FCC is expected to report this year - as it did last year - that broadband providers are not expanding their services in a timely and satisfactory fashion across the country.

Miller's report is online at wvpolicy.org. Strover's report, "Scholars' Roundtable: The Effects of Expanding Broadband to Rural Areas," is online at ruralstrategies.org. Information on Internet access speed is available at SpeedMatters.org.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV