Problem is real, solutions elusive

With obvious exceptions like the most remote areas of the desert Southwest, there probably aren’t that many places in the U.S. where the digital divide — that increasingly critical gap between those with ready Internet access and those without — is more pronounced than in parts of Georgia.

The economic logistics of the problem would be familiar to rural and small community television viewers in the pre-satellite dish era. It wasn’t worth the expense cable companies would have to incur to provide service in sparsely populated areas.

The difference now, in the so-called Information Age, is that what too many Georgians lack ready access to isn’t television, but the Internet. As Regina Willis of the nonprofit BetterGeorgia.org wrote back in May, “Internet is a bread and butter necessity these days.”

Now it isn’t about whether people in the less populated parts of Georgia can get ESPN or “Duck Dynasty,” but whether they can get affordable access to the most complete and efficient and necessary information conduit humankind has yet devised.

A state House committee — the Joint High-Speed Broadband Communications Access for All Georgians Study Committee (that name alone might create connectivity problems) — is studying the issue this year. The very wording of the resolution that created the committee notes that “high-speed broadband communications is to the 21st Century what highway construction and electrification were to the development of our rural communities in the 20th Century.”

According to a recent story in the Macon Telegraph, the committee will spend the rest of this year “looking at the possible roles for companies that provide phone, wireless or broadband service … at what other states do, and what some communities in Georgia have done to set up their own broadband services.”

Theirs is not an easy task, because there is currently no solution to the problem that won’t be expensive.

But the problem itself is expensive. It’s an economic progress problem, because “where there’s no robust internet connection,” as the Macon story notes, “it can be hard for businesses to grow.” And of course, it’s an education problem: Committee co-chair Rep. Don Parsons, R-Marietta, said that while Internet access obviously isn’t a problem in his urban/suburban district, “that’s information and resources that [rural] children don’t have.”

BetterGeorgia.com, citing FCC statistics, says high-speed Internet service is presently “unobtainable” for 41 percent of the nation’s rural schools. According to the same website, some 75,000 small businesses in Georgia lack that access.

It will be interesting to see how (or if) this divide has been bridged elsewhere. Legislation creating tax advantages and other incentives for telecom providers to serve these remote areas is one possibility. Subsidies or tax credits for individuals and businesses might be another. Maybe other states and other communities have far better ideas.

In any case, we don’t need the old “Two Georgias” problem to resurface, this time with digital access as the defining gap.