Government not exempt to digital divide

The digital divide is affecting segments of the federal and state governments,

officials warn.

And unless telecommunications companies address the problem by building

the wireless infrastructure in rural areas, the government should consider

taking back the broadcast spectrum it gave the companies, one senior government

official suggests.

The problem stems from the fact that more money is to be made in metropolitan

regions, so companies focus on developing wireless communications there.

But state governments and even federal agencies with large numbers of people

working in rural areas are finding themselves left behind when it comes

to wireless communications, according to E. Linda Rafats, manager of the

U.S. Agriculture Department's marketing service.

Rafats said that 85 percent to 90 percent of USDA employees work outside

of Washington, D.C., many of them in areas not well served by wireless communications.

Other agencies, such as the Interior Department and the Internal Revenue

Service, also have large numbers of employees scattered across the country,

she said.

And with wireless communications becoming increasingly important, the "have-nots"

in government are going to find it more difficult to do their jobs.

"No one is addressing how we will carry out our mandates in rural areas

when the infrastructure is not there," she said.

One senior government official, however, speaking on condition of anonymity,

suggested that the government has a big stick it can use to force companies

to build a rural infrastructure.

That stick is the broadcast spectrum over which telecom companies send their

signals. The official said that Congress gave the spectrum to the companies

with the mandate that they meet the public's needs — including in rural

areas.

If the companies are not delivering, he said, Congress should consider pulling

the spectrum until companies comply.

"I recommend that state and local officials get together through the [National]

Governors' conference and bring it to a national level," he said. Congress

will pay attention when concerns come from the country's governors, he said.

Rafats does not think pulling the spectrum from the companies will help

and may make the companies less willing to develop the infrastructure. Still,

government has to have a role, she said.

"I think we need government to go out and assure that there is better [wireless]

coverage throughout the country," she said.

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