Creation of a public/private authority to oversee the development of broadband infrastructure in rural areas of Arizona was endorsed Thursday by attendees at a state telecommunications summit in Mesa.
About 100 policymakers, county and city officials, tribal leaders and telecommunications companies attended the 2007 Arizona Telecom Summit at the Mesa Convention Center, which was presented by the Arizona Telecommunications and Information Council, a group that promotes the deployment of telecom services statewide.
The purpose was to generate support for measures that could be introduced in the Arizona Legislature next year to encourage the buildout of broadband infrastructure to underserved rural parts of the state.
The group supported the creation of an Arizona Broadband Development Authority that would oversee the implementation of a statewide plan for high-speed Internet service. They also emphasized the importance of finding ways to reduce the cost of extending broadband infrastructure, such as fiber-optic lines, to rural areas and ensuring that local communities play a major role in the process.
Also proposed was the creation of a revolving fund under the control of the authority that would be used to help pay for rural broadband projects. One possibility is to place a surcharge of about 50 cents on the monthly bills of existing broadband customers, said Michael Keeling, chairman of the council.
However, that proposal is sure to divide rural and urban interests in the Legislature as well Internet service providers that serve different urban and rural constituencies.
Such urban subsidies of rural areas already takes place in the construction of roads, electricity utilities, water systems and other infrastructure projects, said Galen Updike, manager of telecom development for the Arizona Government Information Technology Agency.
“We have a real digital divide, and as we move ahead with telemedicine, e-learning and other programs where broadband access is required, we disenfranchise a whole lot of people if we don’t have an urban/rural program,” he said.
Keeling said many of Arizona’s rural communities have access to basic broadband service, but they don’t have the infrastructure for advanced service, which he defined as one megabit per second download speeds. About 50 percent of Arizona residents in rural communities do not have access to such connections, which are needed for the latest electronic health, government and learning services. If affordable broadband were everywhere throughout Arizona, the state’s gross domestic product would increase by $8.5 billion, state revenue would increase by $100 million annually and 11,500 mostly high-tech, jobs would be created, Keeling said.
The reason for the rural broadband deficit is that the costs are often too great for the returns that telephone companies and other providers would receive from their investments.
“Broadband deployment requires a balance between deployment costs, affordable monthly end-user rates and the length of time for the provider’s return on investment,” said a report from the Arizona Telecommunications and Information Council. “Today telecom providers are looking at an ROI requirement of 18 months to two years.... This is often not a feasible model in rural and under-served areas. Public and private organization need some form of longterm, low-cost financing.”
One of the major impediments is the cost of acquiring right of way to run fiber-optic lines in rural areas, Updike said. He said California, Maryland and Maine have approved laws that provide right of way on state-owned land at no cost to privatesector developers if it’s for broadband deployment. “We would like to do that here,” he said.
Participants said right-ofway costs also could be reduced if the routes that follow roads or other existing facilities were exempt from environmental and archaeological impact studies.