EDITORIAL: What’s this Internet thing about?

HAVE YOU EVER seen a drone? Unless you’re a beekeeper, probably not. But mechanical drones are on their way into everyday civilian life, delivering groceries, issuing traffic tickets, invading our privacy for fun and profit. What if that sweet little trick-or-treater in the dark cape and mask is actually a drone in drag operated by a teenager on a smart phone, sprawled on a basement couch thousands of  miles away?

Once people thought that robots would walk. That’s silly. Why would robots walk if they could fly? Think of what flying robot drones could do for Columbia County. We don’t have much public transportation, but if you could hail an airborne drone, you could avoid Route 9 traffic, slippery spots on the Taconic Parkway and kamikaze deer, let alone shoveling your driveway. Where do we get one of those drones, Mr. Jetson?

Or maybe not. People who think about these matters tell us that if we want to imagine the future, we can’t assume it’ll be like the past… only different. If they’re honest, futurists will also admit that much of the stuff they envision never happens.

That leaves places like this county in a bind as we try to plan for a future that has begun arriving a lot sooner than we expected. Take the case of folks in North Chatham who recently told the Town Board that their Internet service runs at a snail’s pace compared to what they need to operate businesses out of their homes.

The problem is economic as well as technical. Much of the data that courses through the Internet in the central and eastern parts of the county travels on old copper telephone wires. There’s a limit to what this early 20th century wiring can handle in terms of 21st century digital communications. The obvious solution is to replace it. But that gets expensive, because the best alternative at the moment is fiberoptic cables, and any company that invests in running fiber cable needs a lot of paying customers to convince stockholders it’s a good investment. There is fiberoptic cable in parts of the county but there aren’t a lot of people here, and only a few of them live in North Chatham.

You could argue that this is the market at work, and if North Chatham residents choose to live there, they’ll just have to accept poor service or pay high-cost alternatives. But this cold-blooded economic analysis overlooks the larger truth that no matter where you live in Columbia County you probably don’t have optimum Internet service or soon won’t. The demand for data is undergoing explosive growth as we rely ever more on digital technology.

The evidence that North Chatham is not so different from the rest of the county was implicit in some demographic trends cited this week by Ken Flood, executive director of the Columbia Economic Development Corporation (CEDC) in his annual report. Among the statistics he presented were graphs showing that both our population and the percentage of working age people will shrink over the next two decades. He also reported that 65% of the employed people who live here now go to work somewhere outside the county.

These data raise questions, like who will provide basic services–take firefighting as an example, which is an all-volunteer service right now–and what kind of industry do we need to attract that will keep the local economy afloat?

In response the CEDC has developed reasonable goals like creating office space, marketing the county’s strengths in agritourism and the arts, and providing services to tourists and second home owners. All of these will help sustain the character of the county as it exists today. But the plight of North Chatham Internet users hints at a larger problem and an opportunity on the immediate horizon.

We need to encourage young people to come here for more than occasional tourism, and you don’t have to be a futurist stargazer to grasp that this task requires a comprehensive digital network access plan–a public-private partnership encompassing all parts of Columbia County–for fast, reliable Internet service. Young entrepreneurial people are far less interested in the size of our airport or the velocity of our train service than they are in the speed of their digital connection once they’re here.

Any economic plan for the future of the county must embrace a digital connection upgrade countywide. Otherwise it’s a plan that accepts a future chained to the past instead of one that shapes a brighter future.

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