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Rural Riddle: Do Jobs Follow Broadband Access?

SOURCE: | By Laris Karklis - The Washington Post - April 23, 2009

"They took a holistic view of its workforce with support programs, and they see it as a long process," said Karen Jackson, director of Virginia's Office of Telework Promotion and Broadband Assistance.

CGI said it was attracted by Lebanon's willingness to train workers and by higher levels of education than in other parts of the region. About 71 percent of Lebanon's residents have a high school diploma, compared with Rose Hill, where only 29 percent do, according to the census.

The story of Rose Hill is more nuanced.

Telecommunications and cable service providers had been unwilling to bring in broadband networks. The costs of laying fiber lines and building cell towers among miles of fallow tobacco farms and through mountainous terrain would never be recovered by subscriber fees, they said.

But two years ago, with the help of Boucher, fiber lines were brought to Rose Hill's 700 residents. The town was able to tap money from a state tobacco settlement fund for broadband projects and a rural telecommunications program run through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

At a cost of $700,000 for 140 homes, fat fiber-optic pipes came. A local telecom carrier offered in-home service for $49 a month. Free broadband came to the town's library.

One in three homes signed up for the service. Only a handful of jobs were created.

Joan Minor was able to work from her home in Rose Hill, where she writes grants and is paid by the Agriculture Department to run the community's Web site. Mike Bacon kept his franchise with NAPA Auto Parts through a few swift keystrokes.

"It's changed my business, and I'm getting better deals than before," said Bacon, who is now an online bargain-hunter.

Derek Turner, research director for public advocacy group Free Press, said the social benefits of providing broadband to all Americans are enormous, as it would allow people in remote areas like Rose Hill to be engaged in cultural and social trends.

But getting people to subscribe to online services and translating the availability of broadband to economic growth is a harder to achieve.

And the education gap cannot be dismissed, said John Horrigan, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

"It's Economic Development 101 to try to improve the supply of infrastructure to make a locality more attractive for businesses, but you do need a skilled workforce to fully exploit that," Horrigan said. "In rural America, for broadband adoption, skills and relevance still remain a barrier."

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