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Rick Boucher
Sunday, October 2, 2011

Wireless broadband needed to transform a rural economy

Guest Commentary

Picture a technology that delivers local job growth, attracts global customers to local businesses, enhances the economic options for younger workers, expands access to education and reduces health care costs.

Elected leaders, businesses and communities might quickly embrace such a transformational technology, particularly if it also brought with it the ability to dramatically enhance life in rural areas.

This is precisely what wireless broadband can do, and that is why our nation should focus on supporting initiatives to expand access to the technology.

One of the more recent, realistic and promising efforts is the proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile. The merger will result in the delivery of wireless broadband to virtually our entire nation.

Many of us living in urban or suburban areas take the benefits of wireless broadband for granted – for many rural communities, increased access represents a lifeline to job growth opportunity, cutting edge health care and quality education.

Rural residents have too often been left behind as more urbanized regions adopt the next new communications technology. It is difficult and expensive to wire rural and remote areas, and the lack of customer density has meant these communities can be the last to have access to the latest technology that drives economic growth and business efficiency.

We can easily see the benefits of a rural retail business having a Web site. Tourists who have shopped at a store in person will quickly find they can place future orders, and word spreads quickly to new customers.

But we don’t always realize the many other benefits of wireless broadband to our rural small businesses, benefits that add up to increased sales and new jobs.

In fact, Deloitte recently issued a study that says the rollout of next-generation wireless broadband could add hundreds of thousands of new American jobs and spur more than $140 billion in GDP growth.

Broadband is the great equalizer. It can help contractors and architects check prices and place orders from a construction site. Professionals in health, education and fields with licensing requirements can stay abreast of requirements through online study. And farmers can quickly connect with restaurants that want the latest information on currently available produce.

Rural communities have long enjoyed a high quality of life. Broadband is a further enhancement that also spurs a wide range of business opportunities.

Through online classes, students can study any subject, design a curriculum that fits around work schedules and even earn a college degree from any location. Entrepreneurs can start a new business from a barn as easily as an office building, and wireless broadband allows them to work virtually with partners around the world.

Farmers can use wireless tools to track weather conditions, while staying in touch without staying in a farm office. Patients can receive world-class health care without traveling to major medical centers, using video consultations and medical monitoring over wireless networks.

Most important for many of us, wireless broadband also allows families to stay connected from wherever we are through video conferences, social networking, photo and video sharing and a multitude of other personal applications.

That’s why this merger matters. It will mean the delivery of next-generation 4G LTE wireless technologies with speeds rivaling the fastest wired connections to an additional 55 million people, covering more than 97 percent of Americans.

Beyond the numbers, it means people in rural areas of New Hampshire would no longer be plagued by slow or nonexistent wireless data services.

I spent 28 years in Congress, representing Virginia’s most rural congressional district. I have a rural perspective and can clearly see the benefits the merger would bring to rural localities nationwide.

Broadband is the engine that will drive business growth, create new jobs and enhance the lifestyles of our rural communities. We should embrace it.

Rick Boucher, a former U.S. congressman, co-founded the Congressional Internet Caucus and chaired the Subcommittee on Communications and the Internet. He is now the honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance and leads the Government Strategies Practice at Washington, D.C., law firm Sidley Austin.