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Op-ed: A Need for Speed

Baltimore Sun
March 6, 2008

Say you are the president of the United States. Your country invented the Internet, yet it has fallen to 15th in the world rankings for high-speed or broadband Internet connectivity. How do you explain such a development? Well, if you are President Bush, you declare victory, claim success in supplying affordable broadband Internet access to Americans, and ignore the fact that many of your citizens don't have access to broadband - and those who do pay much higher fees for much slower speeds than almost every other industrialized nation in the world. But if you're a progressive member of the Maryland General Assembly, you may have a different answer.

America has always realized the importance of investing in traditional infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, railways and waterways. These transportation systems are central to our economy, and we have willingly financed their construction, maintenance and upgrades.

The Internet is the public infrastructure of our time. It is a key component of economic development - and much cheaper to develop than traditional infrastructure. To be able to capitalize on all the economic opportunities and savings made possible by broadband connectivity, we must invest in building a strong framework.

It would not make sense to build highways with gravel when we have asphalt, just because it was cheaper. Why would we build broadband infrastructure with no capability for fast access, when more advanced technology is available? Moreover, much of what is passing as "broadband" under industry classifications doesn't constitute the true high-speed connectivity that we should be building right now.

If the nation were to invest in ubiquitous broadband - in rural and urban areas, with connectivity speeds capable of supporting advanced technological programs - the infrastructure in time would pay for itself. We are failing to take advantage of a resource that is capable of expanding the economy by $134 billion annually and creating 1.2 million jobs per year, according to reports.

Some forward-looking states, such as Maryland, are less willing than Mr. Bush to claim premature victory and more willing than federal legislators to address America's digital decline. People in Southern and Western Maryland have frequently voiced frustration over their lack of affordable and reliable Internet.

This legislative session, two Montgomery County Democrats, Dels. Herman L. Taylor II and Thomas Hucker, have heeded their constituents' cries. Their bills provide funding to map Maryland's existing access to high-speed Internet - the necessary first step to building out broadband infrastructure. A few other states, including Kentucky and California, have taken similar steps.

 

There are many ways that ubiquitous broadband could be achieved, from government projects to private efforts involving subsidies. Many in the Maryland legislature are beginning to recognize not only that broadband provides an economic stimulus but also that broadband build-out would create significant cost savings in the areas of health care, commuting and construction.

 

Take just one example, telemedicine, which permits electronic monitoring of patients and allows doctors and hospitals to share data and images easily and instantaneously, provide treatments to patients in remote locations, and order supplies and prescriptions in simpler and cheaper ways. A recent State University of New York study found that patients using telemedicine to manage congestive heart failure experienced a reduction in overall health care costs of 41 percent. Reduced physician office visits alone saved more than $115 million annually.

Telecommuting is estimated to have the ability to create more than $20 billion of savings annually across the economy. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a 10 percent rise in the number of workers telecommuting once a week would lead fuel use to drop by 1.2 million gallons per week. Telecommuting has also been found to increase worker productivity by 20 percent to 25 percent. When Cisco paid for broadband in employees' homes, it traded wasted commute time for an extra hour of work each day.

Broadband also increases citizens' quality of life. With ubiquitous high-speed Internet access, students from any location and income level in Maryland could take advantage of otherwise unattainable educational opportunities; more people could participate in e-commerce; and homeland security and general safety could be improved by extending connectivity to rural areas.

Maryland has two choices: It can live in the president's alternative reality, or it can ensure a better future for its citizens and set a strong example for other states to follow.