When I moved to Montgomery in mid-2002, I visited an Alabama state agency’s Web site in search of some tax information — information that was readily accessible on the comparable Georgia agency’s site. Not finding it, I phoned the department to ask whether it was in fact available online.
The woman who’d answered my call paused a couple of beats, and then replied, “We do have the Internet.”
Ha ha, another Alabama joke. Well, now the joke’s on us: Alabama and our other neighbors may be out-positioning Georgia to reap a windfall of telecommunications investment.
That windfall will come in a few ways, according to tech guru George Gilder, whose 2000 book “Telecosm” foresaw the past decade’s communications technology revolution, and who was in Atlanta Thursday to talk about tech’s future.
First, a brief history refresher. Think back to 2000, and the technology in your home at the time. You may have had a cellphone, but it wasn’t able to transmit e-mails, photographs or live streaming video. You may have had an Internet connection, but it most likely was dial-up, unfathomably slow by today’s standards.
These changes and others since 2000 arose despite a freshly burst tech bubble that could have “set back the industry catastrophically,” Gilder said. It didn’t, he said, in large part because the federal government exempted broadband from regulations that hampered older technologies.
The result was a flood of investment in broadband, Gilder said, a multibillion-dollar “miracle” that helped Americans adopt this high-speed Internet service faster than any technology before or since. In 2000, just 2 percent of Americans had broadband access. Today, that number is 60 percent.
The future may bring even more staggering innovations: 3-D holograms as staples of teleconferences, and online learning tools that revolutionize education (and slash the amounts of money we devote to it). Plus all of the entertainment and social-media possibilities.
To get there, Gilder and a co-author estimated, the U.S. Internet in 2015 will have to 50 times bigger than it was in 2006. Such an expansion, they wrote, will require $100 billion in investment nationwide, creating millions of new jobs.
Here we get back to my Alabama joke. Georgia should be poised to claim a piece of that $100 billion. As important, Gilder said, Georgia should aim to realize efficiencies from new communications technology that would save consumers and small businesses $3.3 billion over five years. Increase broadband use, and we’d create $3.9 billion and 70,000 new jobs.
But whereas Georgia once was a national leader in telecom deregulation, yielding our state great benefits, we’re fast becoming a laggard even in the Southeast. Outdated price controls, indirect subsidies for rural carriers and other regulatory burdens threaten our ability to seize these opportunities.
Meanwhile, Alabama and others are freeing phone service providers from oversight and rules designed for an era of copper-wire monopolists.
With persistent problems in education, transportation and water, and a big hole in the budget, legislators have a convenient excuse for not addressing telecom policy (even if it would be a pro-market feather in the cap for a Republican majority in dire need of some positive news).
But one thing’s clear: Given all of our other problems, we don’t need another reason for businesses not to invest here.