Rural broadband issues must be tackled before federal telework practical

In Loudon County, a formerly rural area outside of Washington, broadband is very hard to come by. Without government support for infrastructure, government employees won't be teleworking anytime soon.

While having government workers telework seems like a great idea to improve efficiency and reduce traffic, pollution and general employee fatigue, it won't be practical until "exurban" areas can reliably get Internet access. It's a problem in Loudon County, Va., the Washington Post reports, a formerly rural area that is rapidly becoming home to Washington-area citizens trying to escape extreme housing prices of living closer in.

Having moved so far out, it would be good policy all around if workers didn't have to commute in five days a week, but the  big bugaboo is the lack of Internet.

In Loudoun, home to America Online and MCI, 15,000 households -- about 17 percent of the total -- cannot get access to broadband. Most of these homes are in the less populous western part of the county, where phone and cable companies are reluctant to invest in networks without a critical mass of ready customers.

For years the only way to access the Internet there was through a dial-up modem, or later, through expensive and often slow satellite service. But in recent years, a handful of companies and cooperatives selling wireless high-speed Internet service have come online.

The Telework Consortium, aimed at bringing telework to Washington businesses and especially to the federal government, finds the situation frustraing. General manager Rita Mae Walston called on local government to address the issue.

"We have this wonderful modern technology, and you can't even use it unless you can bounce things off barn silos," said Rita Mace Walston, general manager of the Herndon-based Telework Consortium, which helps companies set up work-from-home programs -- an impractical, if not impossible feat in some parts of Loudoun.

She said that unreliable access to broadband puts whole stretches of the county at a disadvantage in recruiting businesses or employees.

"I think Loudoun County needs to look at broadband as being another utility as important as electricity and the telephone," she said.

The answer has to be wireless. The county can erect more infrastructure to help wireless get around barriers, reduce the cost, and aid ISP businesses. But if the federal government actually valued telework, a modest grant to Loudon and other exurban areas around the capital city would do wonders. 

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