Alabama's Broadband Tide

BROADBAND INITIATIVE – If you really want anywhere access to the Internet, you understand the value and you’ll pay for it. A DirecWay dish on an RV at Gulf State Park, on the so-called “Redneck Riviera,” at Orange Beach, Alabama.


BROADBAND INITIATIVE – If you really want anywhere access to the Internet, you understand the value and you’ll pay for it. A DirecWay dish on an RV at Gulf State Park, on the so-called “Redneck Riviera,” at Orange Beach, Alabama.
ORANGE BEACH, Ala. – No more darkness, no more night. The first station on the FM dial here is playing a rendition of the old gospel stand-by “I Saw The Light.” It’s the second day of the 2008 Alabama Cable Show and the morning after Kathy Johnson has made a promise to cable TV operators in this Southern state that they should have a “seat at the table” as the state that is home to collegiate football’s Crimson Tide plans out its initiative to make sure that 99.44% of its households and businesses have high-speed access to the Internet. Johnson is director of the Alabama Broadband Initiative, the subject of a May 22 executive order from Gov. Bob Riley. High-speed Internet access, he says, is “an essential element of economic vitality” and making it a cornerstone of economic development in the digital age “requires unprecedented levels of collaboration and communication among business, local and state government, education, healthcare, tourism, and community leaders.’’ One of her first tasks is to “map” where high-speed access to the Internet is present in Alabama and where it is not. This is so she can figure out how to “drive up demand” for same. The initiative is based largely on the apparent success of ConnectKentucky, a front-running project in the home of horse racing that claims to have jumpstarted adoption of broadband access in its communities by 83 percent in a space of three years, compared with a national average of 57 percent. And it says 18,400 new information technology jobs were created during that period. So inspired by that success was ConnectKentucky that its organizers refashioned the initiative as Connected Nation and thrust itself into presidential race as a shining beacon of how to get this country’s economy revved up again. That effort, however, took a hit from Art Brodsky at Public Knowledge as a front for the interests of telephone companies. So now initiatives like those of Alabama’s that Johnson is in charge of almost automatically come into question. Which may be why she made a point of showing up at the Perdido Beach Resort here and re-assuring cable operators that they would be part of the discussion of how to fill in the “white spaces” in the crimson state, as the tide of broadband access ultimately rolls in. To Alabama and other states in the heartland of America, there is little difference between broadband access and automobile manufacturing in generating economic growth. Representative Greg Wren (R-Montgomery), in endorsing the broadband initiative here, makes it clear that, in his opinion, Alabama has just about replaced Michigan as the center of car-making in this nation. In the space of about half a decade, Alabama has moved up from 14th place in capturing auto manufacturing-related jobs in this country, to third place. And that is likely to go higher. A large Kia factory is being built across the border in West Point, Georgia. But 40 percent of the workers and economic benefit is likely to redound to Alabama, he notes. These sorts of government-inspired “we’ve seen the light” campaigns are all well and good and the intent is to be lauded. Everybody should have high-speed access to the Internet. But, as Mark Fowler, the head of the Alabama Cable Telecommunications Association said a while ago, "This is not a new concept ... and it would be wise for our state not to re-invent the wheel," he said. And so far, the experience of government-inspired broadband initiatives has been this: the individual has to pay the bill, in the end. Who pays for high-speed Internet access after all? If it’s a government initiative, it’s the taxpayer. Translate: The consumer. If it’s a cable or telco initiative, it’s the subscriber. Translate: The consumer. One way or another, it’s the very individuals that government wants to help who decides whether a broadband initiative will succeed or not. A very dense city, Philadelphia, tried to take this bull by the horns and find a way to deliver high-speed wireless access to all its denizens. It turned to a for-profit provider of Internet access, Earthlink, to take on the task. And if foundered. Now Earthlink is trying to turn over the project to a group of individual investors led by a Liberty Bell-city technology entrepreneur. That and a similar experience in San Francisco, where a bunch of folks work in the silicon industries that intrinsically value anything that pushes the edge of technology and communications, does not augur well for a government-led initiative to bring high-speed access to a rural, agrarian state such as Alabama. If you want to take a litmus test of the proposition, just walk, jog or ride a bike through the camping ground at the Gulf State Park here. This is the well-tended and low-cost home ground of the so-called “Redneck Riviera” along Alabama’s slice of the Gulf of Mexico. There are probably a couple hundred recreational vehicles of different sizes and models parked here on this warm June day. Plus, a few tents. This is where and the RV is how you come to this strand of white sands and blue water when you can’t afford or don’t want to spend for a room in one of the ever-increasing lineup of high-rise resorts along the sparkling beaches of Gov. Riley’s state. Almost every one of these RV’s is equipped with a TV antenna, to pull in over-the-air TV signals – at least until Feb. 17, when analog transmissions from local stations end and digital broadcasts begin. Only a handful have satellite TV dishes. Just one has a DirecWay dish, to pull in and send out data over the Internet. DirecWay is now calling itself Hughes Net, of course. And its monthly service fees range from $60 for 700 kpbs downloading and 128 kbps uploading to $80 for 1.5 mpbs downloading and 200 kpbs uploading. Interpret this any way you want. But the way it looked to this surveyor is that Alabama residents will pay for television service first and second, Internet access only in exceptional cases. So if you’re in charge of a statewide broadband access initiative, rather than a municipal wireless access initiative, the message would likely be: don’t just build the infrastructure. They may not come. Unless you explain why it’s worth it. Because someone has to pay for that access. And it always ends up being the taxpayer or subscriber. The man or woman in the apartment, house or RV next door. Now, back to “Holy Wars,” on the Rejoice Broadcast Network on WPCS, Pensacola, Florida.

TELEVISION INITIATIVE – If what you really want is anywhere access to TV, you understand the value and you’ll pay for it. A satellite TV dish and a local TV signal antenna on an RV at Gulf State Park, on the the so-called “Redneck Riviera,” at Orange Beach, Alabama.

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