County to explore how deep is local digital divide


Published: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 5:56 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 5:56 p.m.

Alachua County Commissioner Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson says there is a digital divide locally when it comes to broadband Internet service — and now, government staff are researching just how deep that divide is.

Hutchinson raised his concern with fellow commissioners, resulting in a directive for staff to gather additional information and come up with possible solutions to narrow the gap in Internet service among different areas of the county.

"In our community, there's probably a greater digital divide than anywhere else because we have such great service along the innovation corridor between the university and downtown," he said, "and literally a mile or two away, there are people who are on slow dial-up. And when I say slow, I mean absolutely, uselessly slow."

Hutchinson lives in northwest Gainesville and works at Alachua Conservation Trust in east Gainesville near Rochelle.

Hutchinson said his home Internet is so inefficient he uses the faster service of an iPhone to go online, while a couple Conservation Trust employees work from home when they have a lot of online work to do because of the organization's frustratingly slow connection.

Some students go to a Starbucks or McDonald's to do homework because they can get a stronger Internet connection there.

"We should be a community where high-speed Internet is in the wires virtually everywhere," he said.

The commission has asked staff to research online broadband connections throughout the county, an assignment on which Sustainability Program Manager Sean McLendon and Economic Development Coordinator Edgar Campa-Palafox, both county employees, are collaborating.

McLendon said this is a complicated infrastructure issue for the community. Bridging the so-called digital divide will include budgetary implications and require investments from the county just as road, sewer or other public infrastructure projects would.

"It takes time to find funding for these things. It is a long-term strategy," he said.

There is a wide range of connectivity and the lack of such in the community, and staff is working with various entities in the area to gather information on where the problem areas are, officials said.

Campa-Palafox said broadband service is becoming a key infrastructure need for businesses, including those not involved in the technology sector. Just as they need access to sewer systems and roads, companies increasingly require an efficient Internet connection.

"Now it's almost expected you will have some kind of broadband service," he said of companies looking for places in which to locate.

The digital divide is an economic development problem in the sense that businesses will not want to settle in areas of Alachua County that either have no Internet access or have a slow connection, Campa-Palafox said.

The county's Economic Development Advisory Committee will work closely with staff as it researches this problem and considers potential solutions.

"The issue is a complex issue, and that's why we're going to EDAC to get input from citizens," Campa-Palafox said.

For Hutchinson, the disparity in broadband service is clearly an economic development issue.

"I mean, we pride ourselves in this Innovation Gainesville effort, and yet we are turning our back on large numbers of people who could be part of that whole innovation economy if they just had Internet," he said.

He said he wants to engage both residents and service providers in community conversations about this issue to discover where the problem areas are and how to improve their online access.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gvillesun.com.

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