Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Broadband vs. Asphalt

The leaders of SW Virginia have long pursued a two-track strategy for integrating the economy of their isolated, mountainous region with that of the rest of the country: Building highways and building broadband. While the Coalfield Expressway project remains stuck in limbo, communities in SW Virginia are among the most wired in rural America.

Rep. Rick Boucher, 9th, used his position in Congress to steer telecommunications investment into the region before the Internet was cool, before the term "broadband" had been coined. And, as Sen. William Wampler, R-Bristol, tells the Bristol Herald Courier, the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission has been investing heavily in broadband as well. Sayeth the Herald Courier about a recent meeting of the Commission:

The commission’s technology members were briefed on how the region has used broadband Internet service and other telecommunications features to promote economic development, education and job training. "It’s no different than the old shell buildings we used to build," Wampler said of using the technology to lure companies the way the traditional, ready-made buildings once were used.

It will take millions of dollars, maybe tens of millions of dollars, to provide ubiquitous wireless broadband access to the communities of SW Virginia. By contrast, it would take billions of dollars to build the four-lane Coalfield Expressway. A wireless broadband infrastructure would integrate SW Virginia into the information-intensive Knowledge Economy. By contrast, the Expressway would integrate the region into the declining Industrial Economy.

Let's see.... the less expensive strategy (by a factor of 10 or more) would leapfrog the region into the economic future, while the expensive strategy would commit the region to the economic past. Hmmm. Not a hard choice. The region's leadership needs to focus its creative energies and political capital on broadband, not asphalt.


At 9:44 AM, Anonymous SDH4VBT said...

Heaven forbid we should actually ask the people what they want. I've always wondered about the cost benefit ratio on a mega-project like the Coalfields Expressway, but we can't just stop building or repairing other roads in the region. Perhaps they'd like to actually GO to Roanoke or Nashville rather than shop on the Internet or download their music.

At 7:43 PM, Blogger subpatre said...

Perhaps I'd like to GO to Montana too. Does a 51% regional vote for the 'Montana Expressway' obligate Virginia citizens to fund it?

It's pretty clear the Coalfield Expressway is massively overbuilt, but that doesn't preclude some road improvements for the people who choose to live in SW. Common sense, including realistic economic return, seems to be lost in all this. Maybe it's the sound of all that money.

Jim's right of course, the future isn't material transport, it's information transport. But until the citizens of SW believe that, and direct their own future, they'll be prey to the "big road" interests.

[Not so sure that Virginia shouldn't have a VDIT as well as VDOT]

At 9:18 AM, Blogger Jim Bacon said...

sdh4vbt, In a world of scarce resources, you can't have everything you'd like to have. You have to make choices. One way to rank those choices is to calculate a Return on Investment (which, if course, is easier said than done when it comes to the public welfare). By whatever metric you choose, however, broadband for SW Virginia would seem to offer a higher ROI than the Coalfield Expressway.

Plus, as subpatre suggests, it's not either/or. Full funding of broadband wouldn't preclude selected transportation improvements for the region. But given the alternate uses of public dollars, that Coalfield Expressway looks hard to justify.

At 11:17 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

It is difficult to calculate an ROI on public investment, but not impossible. Many intangibles have various ways of being measured, and others are subject to negotiation until we set reasonable or accepted values.

But first we have to agree this is an acceptable way of making decisions and set out to do it.

One problem we have is that for many advocacies, either cost is no object, or they have not included those to whome the costs apply as stakeholders.

Even worse, they marginalize those to whom the costs apply with epithets such as profit grubbing developers.


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