State wants online potential fulfilled

Business and broadband - the two naturally go together in this age where high-speed Internet access is vital for voice, data, mobile communications, websites and more.

To some, broadband is to the 21st century what electricity was to the 19th century, which is why Connecticut is working to improve access to this electronic superhighway - whose potential has yet to be fully tapped within our borders.

The Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering, on behalf of several state agencies, has studied this state's broadband needs so Connecticut can craft a strategic plan guiding future access and service to high-speed Internet service. As a result, the academy took its study on the road, holding regional forums around Connecticut, including one earlier this month at the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut in Waterford.

"Broadband is an economic development engine," says Alissa DeJonge, research director at the Rocky Hill-based Connecticut Economic Resource Center. "The U.S. has led the way in development of high-speed Internet," she added, "and the U.S. is doing well today ... but are we ready for the future?"

There is much to tout about Connecticut's high-speed voice and data services, but there's also plenty of work to be done. DeJonge, who is part of the study management team, says Connecticut's average measured broadband speed is fifth in the country. In fact, Connecticut would be ranked 10th in the world if it were a country in terms of its broadband speeds. Yet the United States still lags other nations, both in terms of its broadband speed and its price. South Korea is first, followed by Japan, then Finland - the United States is ranked 15th.

Information in today's business world is critical to the bottom line. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates that for every dollar invested in broadband, between $3 and $10 is returned to the economy. As DeJonge points out, possessing "digital literacy" is an essential competency these days. But you can't have such competency if you don't have access. The study group says 42 percent of those responding to its survey believe that expanding "affordable" high-speed Internet access to all should be a top priority for the federal, as well as state, government.

As for Connecticut business, 85 percent say they routinely use computers. Those that don't are small firms, typically employing fewer than 10 people. More than 8 out of 10 businesses in Connecticut with high-speed Internet access do so through either digital subscriber lines, known as DSL, or via cable lines.

The broadband study also found that all our towns and cities were at least "nominally served" by one or more high-speed Internet providers. Only a portion of a few towns - notably Old Lyme and Voluntown -were not serviced by any broadband provider. The study showed 100 percent of Connecticut is served by satellite and more than 98 percent is served by wireless. DSL service was a bit lower, around 83 percent, while cable was 82 percent. Fiber service was much lower - less than 5 percent.

Connecticut needs to continue to boost its broadband access because demand continues to soar. That means broadband capacity must grow - and soon. Just think of our own uses - we can now instantly stream movies to our televisions at home, and many firms are shifting to "cloud computing" - using a network of remote servers hosted on the Internet to handle their data needs, rather than their own local servers. Smart phones continue to offer a dizzying array of services, which means their data needs are growing, and education and medicine rely more and more on broadband services - tele-education and tele-medicine are becoming more common terms.

As the study says, "States are approaching broadband as a platform for all activities, especially economic development; (it's) not just a consumer service." The study is calling for the creation of a Broadband Cabinet to coordinate broadband policies among existing state agencies and other entities responsible for broadband policy.

Tony Sheridan, the regional chamber's president and chief executive officer, agrees that continuing to boost broadband access is essential to Connecticut's future economic development, and he welcomes adopting a strategic plan. He also wants to ensure that broadband development doesn't become mired in policy disputes. "Government has a policy role to play here," he acknowledges, but the private sector also needs to continue to play a pivotal role.

"We need to jump this (broadband) issue forward," says Sheridan.

"This could be the best economic development program in the country."

Anthony Cronin is The Day's business editor.


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