Remote work, rural broadband can remake Georgia’s economy

May 17, 2021 9:36 pm

Guest columnist Jay Bailey writes that the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill represents a once-in-a-generation chance to breathe new life into the economic future of small towns across Georgia with expanded broadband access. Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Getty Images

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, its legacy of more flexible remote working arrangements will remain.  80% of CEOs expect to allow employees to continue working remotely at least part time, and 47% expect to allow full-time telework.  Moreover, 66% of Americans say they’d consider moving if their jobs allowed remote work.

Together, these data points could be the foundation for a revival in small-town economies across Georgia.  Knowledge economy employers have long preferred headquartering in large metro hubs – what the economist Enrico Moretti has called “innovation clusters.”

But now, in a remote-work paradigm where working in high-wage, high-skill knowledge industries no longer requires living physically close to headquarters, many workers and their families may relocate permanently – or at least spending more time on “working vacations” from rural escapes.

This trend could remake Georgia’s economic geography over the next decade.  As an investor, I’m betting heavily on a revival in rural economies across our state.  But in order for rural communities to fully benefit from this trend, they’ll need to have the broadband infrastructure to fully support remote work.

The Biden administration’s full-court press for a new $2 trillion infrastructure package offers an opportunity to finally bring high-speed broadband to unserved areas of our state.  It’s a massive economic development opportunity – and one we can’t afford to squander.

To get everyone connected, we’ll need to learn the lessons of earlier efforts that fell short.  The scale and ambition of Biden’s rural broadband plan is remarkable, but there’s a few places it could be improved to make sure we’re getting these federal dollars to the communities that need them as quickly as possible.

First, the package will need to include clear guidelines to make sure we’re focusing taxpayer dollars on the truly unserved rural communities still cut off from the digital economy.  This is one area where the broadband programs in the 2009 stimulus bill fell short – far too many “rural” dollars got diverted to areas that already had high-speed service, and as a result the programs ended up connecting a small fraction of the homes promised.

Second, let’s not tie our own hands by limiting the range of solutions available to get everyone connected as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.  The Biden plan proposes to prioritize government-owned broadband providers – encouraging local towns and municipal utilities to get into the ISP business.  Government-owned providers have a mixed track record – they’ve worked in a few places but have been financial disasters in many others.  So while they may be part of the solution for some unserved areas, we’ll connect rural Georgia much faster by encouraging every kind of provider, and all broadband technologies – fiber, cable, fixed wireless, and even low-earth orbit satellites in some cases – to all participate and compete against each other on equal footing.

The more expertise, investment capital, and experience we can bring to bear on this challenge, the faster we’ll solve it.

Third, let’s not let policy experiments complicate or distract us from the core job of getting high-speed internet to the areas that don’t have it.  For example, reports suggest the administration’s broadband plan may only allow funding for network projects offering “symmetric speeds” with as much upstream capacity as downstream capacity.   That’s a bit of a head-scratcher; as a tech investor, I know that more than 90% of all consumer internet usage is downstream, even in this new remote work paradigm of endless Zoom calls.  Everyone supports building faster networks, but we shouldn’t waste time or money over-investing in upstream capacity if doing so will divert investment capital from the much more immediate goal of getting every unserved community connected as quickly as possible.

This infrastructure bill represents a once-in-a-generation chance to breathe new life into the economic future of small towns across Georgia – making our entire state, including Metro Atlanta, stronger as a result.  With some smart improvements, this package can ensure taxpayer dollars are spent effectively and reach the communities in the greatest need.  And done right, it’s also an opportunity to restore the public’s faith in government’s ability to Do Big Things.

Let’s get this right.

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Jay Bailey
Jay Bailey

James Bailey is president and CEO of the Russell Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, honoring the legacy and business leadership of Herman J. Russell Sr.