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01/15/2011
Jim Martin: Grant for broadband is road to prosperity, but state must allow equal access

Op-Ed, The Charleston Gazette (01/15/11)

Golden opportunities don't come knocking every day. When they do, prudent business and government leaders swing the door open - wide.

West Virginia has such an opportunity in a $126 million grant received by the state through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 for an ambitious program known as the West Virginia Statewide Broadband Infrastructure Project.

The goal? To bring 21st century jobs to West Virginia with 21st century technology via the information superhighway.

A recent Newsweek article, citing data from global consulting firm LECG, predicted that if America added five more broadband connections for every 100 people, the productivity benefit would exceed $50 billion, contributing at least 0.5 percent to the GDP. And while the up-front cost of trenching fiber to every home is high, the infrastructure is scalable and lasts for decades.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that if a network drives public-sector efficiencies of between 0.5 percent and 1.5 percent, it effectively pays for itself. Citynet believes the economic impact for West Virginia is even greater since our state is so far behind.

Most in the industry believe that developing abundant "middle-mile" infrastructure and providing for open access form the very foundation of this complicated effort. In combination, these attributes force providers to compete on price, performance, service quality, service innovation and customer service. Consumers, in the form of businesses, households, community institutions or state agencies, reap the benefits of this healthy environment.

West Virginia currently has neither abundant infrastructure nor open access. Citynet firmly believes the state plan now in place for broadband technology does nothing to address this challenge. The basic question is: Does West Virginia want a monopoly or an open market with competition, greater capacity and lower prices?

The Sunday Gazette-Mail on Dec. 19 reported that the 2010 U.S. Census Statistical Abstract places West Virginia as the state with the fewest residents with Internet access, only 42 percent.

Our public discourse is impacting the discussion. Just recently, the state has renegotiated its contract for the purchase of broadband service because of the expressed concerns of Citynet and others. In addition, after months of requests, the Broadband Development Council finally heard presentations on the grant from Citynet and Frontier, and from the state leaders charged with implementing the grant. The council finally was able to provide input. Questions of access and cost are now on the table for public discussion.

We favor a reworked plan that would allow equal access to middle-mile infrastructure to all providers. We need infrastructure with the capacity to support business in West Virginia. This is about how West Virginia competes, or fails to compete, in the global marketplace.

With whom are we competing? One of the top national programs for broadband enablement is located right next door in southern Virginia. Known as the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative, the program demonstrates the powerful benefits of implementing a highly affordable "middle mile" network system that features open access and competition among all providers.

That's attractive to business. As a business owner, why would you consider locating or expanding in a state where you can only purchase one-third of the broadband capacity of your competitor, but at 20 times the price?

The MBC model is the exact same strategy Citynet has supported with state officials and which Citynet originally proposed in our application to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. This is the only viable strategy capable of propelling West Virginia into the 21st century.

Think of it this way. If you look at a West Virginia roadmap from the early 1970s, you'll find lots of roads, and bits and pieces of two-lane and four-lane highways, but not a viable interstate system. Visionaries like the late Sen. Jennings Randolph and the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd knew we had to change in order to grow. The same scenario plays out today in the completion of Corridor H as an efficient means of bringing goods and services into central West Virginia.

The broadband discussion is virtually the same concept. We're fighting to achieve today's equivalent of the interstate system. Except in this case, we're talking about the information superhighway.

The status quo doesn't work. The current state plan is the "same old, same old" model that has been in existence for decades, the one that has "lifted" West Virginia to 48th in the nation in broadband enablement.

As Jim Justice, owner of The Greenbrier, recently implored the Rotary Club of Charleston, "Aren't you tired of being 48th or 49th or 50th in every national economic ranking? Aren't you just sick of it?"

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for West Virginia to take progressive steps on a massive scale, to position West Virginia for the future, to improve the economic and social well-being of our state, and to usher in new and meaningful benefits for our citizens.

The ability to leverage federal dollars would allow the state to build much-needed infrastructure while holding costs to an absolute minimum, thereby serving as a catalyst to competition, choice and performance. Providers of all types (cable operators, wireless providers, Internet service providers) could offer much higher quality broadband services and at lower costs, which would directly benefit end-users.

As it now stands, West Virginia's plan supports a clearly regressive strategy that will relegate our state to remain on the bottom of national broadband enablement rankings, placing us in an increasingly more precarious position, economically and socially.

The economy of the future is anchored by access to high speed broadband infrastructure at a cost that is competitive and with a capacity that can meet the needs of the future. West Virginia is at a crossroads. We can take the status quo path and allow history to repeat itself as we remain at the bottom, or we can take the path to the future and become a leader. For more information about this important issue, please go to westvirginia.com.

Martin is president and CEO of Citynet.

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