ATLANTA — In the late 1920s, the Republicans crowed about how their policies had put a “chicken in every pot.”
The White House this week is dispatching Vice President Biden to southern Appalachia – the historic backdrop for economic hardship – to update that slogan to “a broadband connection in every home.”
Mr. Biden will announce today in Dawsonville, Ga., $182 million of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants to go to 18 so-called “middle-mile” broadband projects in 17 states. “Middle-mile” refers to the critical link between the Internet backbone network and the local servers that connect to households.
One project in north Georgia would mean broadband access for 42,000 households and 10,000 businesses, according to the White House, which has been under fire for lagging job numbers.
The result of the 18 projects could be “tens of thousands of jobs,” said White House economic adviser Jared Bernstein in a conference call with reporters Wednesday night.
More broadband, more jobs?
The main hope is that with the help of new or boosted broadband access, rural business owners will be able to expand markets for their products and laid-off workers will be able to more easily take college courses online to reshape their careers. The stimulus package allocates a total of $2.5 billion to physically deploy new broadband projects and another $4.5 billion to help Americans make use of the technology.
“The new broadband access will help underserved and often hard-hit communities overcome the distance and technology barrier by expanding connectivity between educational institutions, enabling remote medical consultations and attracting new businesses as well as the jobs that come with them,” the White House said in a statement.
Expanding broadband access to all Americans to close the so-called “digital divide” has been a tough slog. President George W. Bush accelerated the effort of pushing broadband access – which allows for high-speed, large capacity Internet connections – into communities, including the so-called “last-mile” issue of actually hooking homes up to the network. Mr. Bush’s call for complete broadband access by 2007 fell short, although according to some studies nearly 90 percent of US households today can hook up to high-speed Internet.
Major carriers such as AT&T have now backed a goal of 100 percent broadband coverage in the US by 2014 – an ambitious target that the company says will be predicated on support from the government.
Just a modest increase in broadband adoption could add $134 billion to the US economy a year, according to a report last year by Connected Nation, a national nonprofit group. “Greater broadband deployment can restore economic growth, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and expand opportunities for those who have been left behind,” the report concluded.
Costs v. benefits
But the cost of physically connecting the 600,000 rural households currently without broadband could be over $5 billion, with the connection cost per household something like $9,000, according to Gary Kim of TMCnet, a technology website. That’s one reason, he writes, that “some say wireless is really the logical way to upgrade isolated locations.”
What’s more, rural Americans are slower to adopt broadband technology when it’s available than urban dwellers, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
“[P]eople should be realistic,” Mr. Kim writes. Federal broadband funding “will be hugely important to the couple hundred thousand new isolated locations,” he says, but it is not likely to “nudge national statistics very much.”
There’s less than a year left for those stimulus grants to be approved. Lawrence Strickling, the White House’s assistant secretary for communications and information, rebuffed suggestions by reporters that a dearth of fundable projects had led to delays.
“We actually have a terrific inventory of projects, but we want to make sure that they’re going to be there five years from now, so we’re spending time understanding the budget and management [of each proposal],” Mr. Strickling said. “These are complicated projects.”