By Steve Frey
Some of you may remember when television meant three channels, and one of those was somewhat “fuzzy.” You had a choice of NBC, ABC or CBS. Of course, you had to have the antenna pointed in the precise direction to get reception, which was sort of like outdoors Wi-Fi.
Then came cable and maybe as many as 10 channels. One was the time and temperature channel, which had a camera slowly rotate from a clock to a thermometer to a barometric pressure gauge and back again. That was modern technology at the time.
However, even that technology took about 40 years to develop. On this very day in 1926, John Baird presented the first public demonstration of television in his laboratory in London. Baird went on to other firsts, including the first televised display between London and Glasgow in 1927, and later between London and New York in 1928. He was also the first person to use color with a television.
Today, we have nine million channels and all kinds of technology for streaming programming 24-7. Yes, you can watch insurance commercials nonstop on cable. You know Progressive’s Flo and Jamie like they’re family; the Geico Gecko’s latest misadventure can leave you teary, and you’ve seen a thing or two many, many times from Farmers.
You’re Slinging (you devil, you), Netflixing, and doing whatever you can to avoid exorbitant cable/dish prices and still see the Super Bowl in all its glory. The point is, technology is changing as fast as you can say “Blockbuster.”
Which brings us to the intent of this walk down TV memory lane—you have to keep up with technology if you want to stay competitive. Businesses have developed new technology to sell products—can you say Amazon—putting a lot of the brick and mortar stores (and malls) out of business. You can get information off the internet and buy or sell stocks (okay, we know—you like ETFs) in seconds. You can communicate with subsidiaries in Thailand in real time, and you can Google information in milliseconds that, back in the day, would fill thousands of encyclopedias.
You can do all of those things if, and only if, you have the technology and, wait for it, decent broadband internet service. The problem: Southwest Virginia and many other rural communities do not have adequate (not even approaching adequate) broadband accessibility or speeds.
Oh, you can go with a local provider and get 2 or 2.5 Mbps, and yes, it is enough to send an email, but don’t expect to upload anything without enough food and water to survive the wait. And sure, you can get slightly faster speeds if you are willing to trade your car for a one-year contract.
Our two sons-in-law in D.C. and Charlotte mock—yes, I said mock—the speeds we get in the New River Valley. They talk about their 300, 400 and greater Mbps, which makes their broadband look like a Ferrari and ours like a rusty old Huffy bike—with a wheel missing.
Now, I don’t care about myself since I can withstand the techno-abuse of the sons-in-law. The bigger problem is that when a business or industry has a choice, which will they prefer: the Ferrari of broadband internet services or the old Huffy? Will they want to spend millions or billions to move to an area that doesn’t have internet at all like some places in Southwest Virginia? Will they want their children living in an area where students can’t research at home because there is no broadband internet?
That last detail is a big one. Many school divisions have students living in homes without broadband access. That’s a tremendous educational disadvantage. No, we’re not talking about catching the latest Beyonce or Lady Gaga video; we’re talking about researching science, technology, history, English—well, every subject area. Not only do the students in NOVA have the Taj Mahals of modern facilities, but they also have that Ferrari in the driveway for broadband while some students in this neck of the woods don’t even have a Huffy.
The governor said in July that the state has worked on raising the amount of money committed to improving rural broadband from $2 million to $8 million, and the tobacco commission has invested $11 million to the project; however, not much has happened yet. Is that amount even adequate?
It is time to help Southwest Virginia and other rural areas develop the technological infrastructure needed to bring broadband and modern services to every community to support business, education, and a quality of life that will produce greater opportunities. There needs to be a fully-funded initiative to address this problem, especially in the economically hardest hit areas of the state.
Using that television analogy, it is clear that with broadband, some Virginians have no television, some are still on the time and temperature level, and many have those nine million channels at a flick of a finger (or voice-activated Alexa). If politicians and government are serious, they need to get to work on this broadband problem—now.
The reception for this initiative in Southwest Virginia, unlike those early television sets, will be excellent!
Steve Frey is a writer and CEO of Ascendant Educational Services based in Radford.