Now that broadband is finding its way into nearly every corner of Washington, the focus is turning to using the technology to the fullest potential.
Residents should ask themselves if the Internet is a luxury, an expense or a revenue source, said Will Saunders, broadband policy and program manager for the Washington State Broadband Office.
“If you go from watching Netflix over your Internet connection to teaching online in another city or telecommuting to work or expanding your small business’s market area thanks to your broadband connection, then there’s a much better policy argument for making those network services a higher priority,” Saunders said.
The economic impact of broadband can be measured in the explosion of online retail sales, which remained strong through the recent recession. Electronic shopping income in Washington grew to $17 billion in 2010 from $10 billion in 2008.
And it’s not just online giants Amazon and Microsoft that fueled the growth.
It’s coming from countless small businesses that have plugged into high-speed portals, including The Buggy Barn, a quilt shop in Reardan, a town of 570 residents west of Spokane.
The owners, sisters Pam Soliday and Janet Nesbitt, turned to the Internet to market their quilt supplies and patterns. They use Facebook and electronic newsletters to keep in contact with up to 15,000 people per month, and they upload instructional videos on YouTube.
Customers order fabric, supplies and books from as far away as Germany, Italy and Japan, and The Buggy Barn is shipping orders overseas almost daily, Soliday said.
Many people still lack broadband not because they live beyond its reach but because they can’t afford it, don’t know how to use it or think it’s irrelevant, a Federal Communications Commission report concludes.
The FCC is pushing to bridge this digital divide, especially for low-income households.
A small piece of the stimulus pie went to Tincan, the Inland Northwest Community Access Network in Spokane, to boost digital literacy among residents and small businesses.
Tincan received a $1.3 million grant to set up 12 public computer labs in community centers and low-income neighborhoods. Another $1 million grant is going toward training small-business owners to set up websites and use social media, and helping people learn basic computer skills and apply for jobs online.
Private companies also are helping make low-cost connections possible.
Comcast, which provides broadband to 62 percent of Spokane County, launched Internet Essentials in 2011 to offer Internet service for $10 a month to families whose children receive free or reduced-price school lunches. The company also will sell them computers for $150 and offer free digital literacy training to help them navigate the Internet.
CenturyLink, which took over the western U.S. operations of Qwest Communications in 2011, introduced a similar program, Internet Basics, and other providers are following suit.
“We’ve really made this part of the culture now,” said Walter Neary, director of communications for Comcast in Washington. “It’s good business sense to do good. The idea is that if we can get people online, their lives become better.”
It’s not just about having fun online but enabling people to build a better life, he said.
“There are people out there who think the Internet is for getting their kids in trouble on Facebook or seeing their daughter cry because somebody said something nasty on Facebook,” he said. “They don’t realize the Internet is now a path to better and more effective education and better and more productive careers.”