By Dean Whittaker

This question was addressed in one of the more interesting presentations at the IEDC Leadership Summit in West Palm Beach this week. Corey Johns with Connected Tennessee discussed their program, Digital Work, in which they are training or re-training workers to provide them with new digital skills that are in great demand, such as programming and web design. Equally important, Connected Tennessee is helping communities build the broadband infrastructure that will connect these trained employees to their work. This is part of the organization’s effort to bring broadband connectivity to their entire state.

Earlier this month, Whittaker Associates, as part of the Pro Learning Lab, hosted a webinar entitled, “Broadband Internet Services – If You Build It, Will They Come?” One of our panelists, Charles Wood with the Chattanooga Area Chamber, spoke about their municipal broadband initiative to bring 1-gigabit connectivity to 150,000 homes and businesses in the area serviced by their municipal power system. The result of this three year effort are just starting to bear fruit with the attraction of 3-D printing companies and a summer program inviting high-tech companies to come and experiment to learn what can be done with high-speed connectivity. There has also been a large amount of press coverage for Chattanooga as an early adopter.

Another panelist, Hoyt Strain with the Lafayette Economic Development Authority, described the effort of Lafayette, Louisiana to bring broadband services to their community through their municipal power company. They struggled through a two-year court battle for the right to provide this service as part of their municipal infrastructure. This legal battle that they eventually won resulted in considerable cost and a lengthy process.

Currently, there are 20 states in which the lobbyist for the telecommunications companies has successfully had legislation passed to prevent the municipal governments from offering broadband services as part of their utility infrastructure. This effort has resulted in a lack of competition, resulting in low investment to upgrade our telecommunication infrastructure, slow speeds, and comparatively high cost broadband services.

Nationally, President Obama has directed the Federal Communication Commission to intercede to overcome this impediment to the municipal government’s ability to provide this key infrastructure. Congress, encouraged by lobbyists, is threatening to sue the President over this issue.

In the meantime, many of us pay a significantly higher cost for a much slower speed of connectivity than is provided in several other countries around the world. So, stay tuned as the history is still being written by Chattanooga and Lafayette and other pioneering communities.