Alabama must close the technology gap

By Staff
Gerald Dial, Guest Columnist
Alabama is enjoying the most sweeping evolution in economic development in the history of the state. We have achieved an historic low unemployment rate of 3.3 percent.
To ensure continued success, however, Alabama must lay the proper technological foundation.
If all areas of our state are to reap the benefits of robust economic growth, we must make broadband, also known as high-speed Internet access, available to every resident. Currently Alabama ranks 43rd in the nation in personal computer ownership and 44th in Internet access.
Communities with access to this technology possess many significant advantages over those without access.
Technology breaks down the barriers of distance and equips rural residents to participate more fully in economic and civic life. Broadband allows rural areas to attract businesses and individuals who otherwise would be unable to live and work in rural communities. Broadband also can help rectify the shortage of education and health care opportunities which have functioned as barriers to rural economic development in the past. Internet access even gives farmers an edge by allowing them to monitor weather and crop reports and get quicker access to machinery parts, feed and seed supplies.
Broadband networks are being rapidly constructed across Alabama.
Governor Bob Riley has been the leading advocate for ACCESS, (Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, and Students Statewide), which connects all schools in Alabama with virtual classrooms. This program is greatly expanding educational opportunities in our rural communities and has become a model for other states.
Telemedicine is another example of how high-speed interactive broadband is being used as a cost-effective means to deliver vital services to underserved areas. Instantaneous communication between health professionals and patients enables remote monitoring, chronic disease management and more effective response to emergencies.
We face tough challenges in ensuring that these benefits flow not only to those who can afford advanced network services, but to all residents of Alabama, regardless of income or location.
To meet that challenge, Alabama hopes to follow in the footsteps of one of our sister states, Kentucky.
ConnectKentucky was implemented by Governor Ernie Fletcher in response to a charge by President Bush to expand broadband to rural America. ConnectKentucky brought together innovative educational entities, businesses and public agencies in a public-private partnership to accelerate broadband availability and technology literacy.
Congress is currently considering several measures designed to encourage rapid deployment of affordable broadband Internet service, particularly in rural areas. U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, D-IL recently filed the bipartisan Connect the Nation Act of 2007. This legislation supports a grant program that would help other states to duplicate the nation-leading technology success realized in Kentucky.
Alabama and Kentucky are very similar in size, population and presence of rural communities. Believing that our state also has the same opportunity for technology advancement, a group of Alabama's leaders met recently to review Connect the Nation and the ConnectKentucky model. We reviewed a mapping effort that is under way to identify and map broadband gaps in Alabama, a new health-care broadband initiative, funding opportunities for broadband expansion and discussed next steps.
An advisory committee was formed to work toward strategic technology expansion across health care; K-12 education; higher education; business and industry; agriculture; libraries; community-based organizations; tourism, recreation and parks and government.
The statement made by Governor Fletcher at his launch of ConnectKentucky summarizes our view: "Although broadband infrastructure on its own is not a silver bullet solution for prosperity, adequate access to broadband technology is an enabler for knowledge-based economic development and enhancing the lives of citizens and businesses. Broadband Internet access enables enhanced education, healthcare delivery, government services, entertainment and entrepreneurship."
It is up to us to ensure this vital technology is available to everyone. As the work of our committee moves forward, communities across the state will have opportunities to join the effort. We ask for the help and support of every Alabamian as we work to build the technological foundation for our future.
Gerald Dial is the executive director of the Alabama Rural Action Commission. The commission was created by Governor Bob Riley to improve education, health care and employment opportunities in Alabama's rural area. Kathy Johnson is the director of public affairs for the Alabama Department of Finance.

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