By Scott Meacham
Copyright © (2019), The Oklahoman
I learn something new practically every day in this job. For example, did you know that Oklahoma has a state meal?
According to the Oklahoma Historical Society website, that spread includes chicken-fried steak, barbecued pork, fried okra, squash, cornbread, grits, corn, sausage with biscuits and gravy, black-eyed peas, strawberries and pecan pie.
There’s nothing fancy about these country classics (although my doctor might question a few). The recipes call for more than two-dozen ingredients to pull off this meal — and that’s not counting all the spices and seasonings.
Another thing I learned recently has to do with the recipe for a robust innovation economy and the unintended consequences of well-intended legislation.
Here’s the situation. In a true innovation economy, high-speed internet access that is always on and faster than traditional dial-up access (commonly referred to as broadband) is critical — to corporations, to startups and to K-12 schools, educators and especially students. Our young people cannot adequately prepare for any career without consistent and high-speed internet access.
The availability of broadband depends on whether a subscriber is in a populated or rural area, on carrier’s pricing and on how carriers prioritize their investment in expanding broadband infrastructure. Not surprisingly, access is more ubiquitous in higher populated cities and towns. However, in rural areas about 25 percent of the population — around 14 million people lack access.
According to the Federal Communication Commission’s 2018 broadband deployment chart, Oklahoma is last in our region in broadband development. Just 77 percent of our population has access, compared to Texas with 93 percent, Kansas with 89 percent, Missouri at 83 percent and New Mexico at 81 percent. The recent FCC Connect America Fund auction allocated more than $110 million to expand first-time service to more than 70,000 rural homes and businesses, which is terrific, except that the plan is over the next 10 years.
Oklahoma needs broadband service in unserved areas now, and this problem is going to get even more exacerbated with the introduction of 5G. If we want more high-speed broadband, we need more capital investment from the broadband carriers. Yet we are the sixth-highest state for taxing communications equipment. Other states in our region exempt equipment, or if they tax it, tie rebates to new infrastructure, or offer tax incentives.
As a state, it would behoove us to recognize that universal high-speed broadband is a critical ingredient to driving increased innovation, accelerating STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education for Oklahoma’s young people — and for seeding entrepreneurship in our rural areas.
When it comes to broadband expansion in Oklahoma — the gravy needs more salt.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state appropriations from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology. Contact Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org .