Mike Montgomery: Connectivity needed to build stronger Merced, region

Can Merced be the next Silicon Valley?

According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of Americans now subscribe to broadband Internet service at home, and an additional 10 percent of Americans have broadband access at home via a smartphone.

While that’s the good news, there are still some communities in America that lack some kind of broadband or Internet access at home. About 7 percent of Americans say they lack Internet access altogether.

Given how vital connectivity has become, closing this “availability gap” should be a priority for policymakers at every level of government. We live in an age when access to a reliable, fast Internet connection provides more than entertainment. It’s critical for work, finding a job, education – basically, for finding a place in today’s digital economy.

Closing the gap, however, comes with a hefty price tag. Government alone cannot shoulder this burden, as it requires billions of dollars in private investment to bring high-speed Internet access across our vast nation. America’s broadband service providers must play a role in modernizing and upgrading our nation’s communications infrastructure. This effort promises to connect more of the country than ever before with modern, next-generation, high-speed broadband services.

Silicon Valley entrepreneur Josh Becker, a member of the UC Merced Foundation board of trustees, understands the value of closing the gap.

“The rapid rate of growth we’re seeing in Merced is due to a number of different factors, including increased access to wired and wireless broadband, not just on campus, but throughout the entire community. This is creating opportunities for everyone,” Becker said.

In Washington, D.C., people refer to this network upgrade as a “transition.” Actually, it’s more of an evolution – the logical next step in delivering communications services. More fiber optics in more places. Expanded availability of blazing fast broadband instead of voice-only service. Advanced wireless Internet access in every pocket of every community.

Policy decisions locally and in Washington, D.C., should encourage private investment in broadband. From the national oversight at the Federal Communication Commission to municipal planning board, decisions must support local infrastructure deployment. Policymakers must keep up with the demands of Americans who seek to take advantage of new technology and faster broadband connections.

Even to the extent that government policies encourage private investment, delivering high-speed broadband to some pockets of the country might remain challenging. Just as they did more than a century ago when they prioritized connecting every household and business to a telephone network, policymakers must now make it a priority to provide high-speed broadband access to all Americans, even those in hard-to-reach areas.

Becker, the CEO of Lex Machina, realizes that the growth of Merced cannot simply be limited to the university.

“Merced shares a border with Silicon Valley, the innovation capital of the world,” said Becker. “If the business community and government work together to increase connectivity for the region, we’ll get to the point where the geographical lines are blurred.”

There are barriers to upgrading our nation’s communications networks, but every hurdle can and must be surmounted. Only if the private and public sectors work together can the goal of universal broadband access be achieved.