by Marshall Kirby, Public Policy Analyst

January 17th, 2011 could be a big day for the island of Puerto Rico.  That day is the anticipated start date of the Puerto Rico Bridge Initiative (PRBI), which will set up a fiber optic “bridge” network from Florida to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.  The project was funded by the Recovery Act (Stimulus Bill) at a cost of $25.7 million through the US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).  Critical Hub, the company awarded the contract, contributed another $6.8 million to the project.

The goal is to fund fast and affordable broadband to the island.  A secondary goal of the project is to provide Puerto Rico with a “stimulus” to their economy in the information technology sector.  The island ranks last in the United States for broadband penetration and use, and the statistics found on the issue show less than 40% subscription rates.  Additionally, the current broadband infrastructure on the island is much slower (78%) and more expensive (60%) than elsewhere in the US.  This project should boost the economic potential for Puerto Rico, given that it will allow for greater job creation, allow for more educational and e-learning opportunities, and raise the islands competitiveness for attracting more firms.

Broadband has become a hot topic in policy circles, oftentimes referenced for developing countries.  However, with the global economy hit hard during the recession, developed countries like the United States have begun to pay broadband expansion much-needed attention.  While the US ranks high on broadband usage and access, millions of people still have limited to no access to fast speed internet.  Additionally, many people who are located in areas with access are unable to afford the service, which leaves them at a disadvantage.  Bolstering our broadband infrastructure and improving access can have positive impacts in improving the economic prospects of minorities, low-income earners, and those in rural and remote locations.

Broadband innovation and expansion as an economic development and growth policy tool should not be ignored.  The Recovery Act allowed for $7.2 billion in funding for broadband access across the United States, which highlights the level of commitment policymakers have dedicated to the issue.  However, it does have its limitations.  Without proper training programs, those who would have benefited the most from broadband expansion will not have the tools and capacity to harness its full power.  It is also important to mention that broadband initiatives, even when they are well targeted, will not produce instant economic growth.  Similarly to educational investment, it will take some time for the full benefits to be reaped.

With the PRBI initiative, policymakers and community leaders should be pushing for Puerto Rico’s small businesses and soon to be entrepreneurs to seize the day and take full advantage of expanded access to benefit themselves, their community, and the Commonwealth as a whole.

To read more about government-funded broadband initiatives visit: www.broadbandusa.gov

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