By Victoria Compton
Special to the Islands’ Sounder
I have some bad news for you.
Unemployment in San Juan County is higher than it’s been in nearly 20 years. If you include folks who have exhausted their benefits, those forced to work part-time jobs and those who have lost their “under the table” employment, we’re looking at over 10 percent of the workforce.
But there’s some good news. A study by the Brookings Institution has shown that for every one percentage point increase in fast broadband penetration, employment is projected to increase by around .25 percent a year. (*)
Other research has indicated exactly the same thing: A study by MIT researchers showed that broadband added about 1.2 percent to a community’s growth rate.(**) A World Bank study from 2009 found an even stronger correlation—that broadband added around 12 percent to the growth rate in the number of jobs.(***)
The FCC defines “broadband” as 4Mbps or faster. In San Juan County, only 10 percent of our residents have access to speeds like that, and anything less than this isn’t fast enough for bandwidth-heavy applications.
On average, 30 percent of the rest of the U.S. has access to speeds higher than 4Mbps.(****) In some cases, the speeds are much, much higher. The average for the rest of the U.S. is 6.1Mbps. The average in San Jose, Calif., is 13.7Mbps. So let’s do the math.
Imagine if we could bump up our fast broadband penetration rate to what the rest of the U.S. currently enjoys—30 percent. That’s 20 points higher than what we have now. Twenty times .25 equals 5 percent.
Five percent. That would cut our current unemployment rate from around 9.28 percent, where it’s been hovering for the last three years, down to 4.28 percent.
That’s the same as it was before the Great Recession began. Considering the fact that 1-in-10 of our neighbors needs a job, and so many of our retirees need to supplement their shrinking incomes by continuing to work, that’s welcome news indeed.
How do we make it happen?
Three years ago, the San Juan County Economic Development Council and the San Juan Island Community Foundation took on the task of researching what improved broadband speeds could do for our economy, and how we could realize the dream of a more connected community.
Last year, OPALCO became involved. By expanding their existing fiber infrastructure with additional wireless deployment, our member-owned power cooperative can bring our high-speed broadband penetration up to what the rest of the U.S. enjoys—and beyond.
And what can you do to help make it happen?
OPALCO and the San Juan County Economic Development Council invite you to attend one of our Community Broadband Forums, coming in May—details soon. Let your voice be heard as part of the effort to improve broadband.
It’s pretty easy math: Broadband equals jobs. Your support of the San Juan County Broadband Initiative will create jobs for islanders—for a neighbor, for a recent graduate, a retiree…or possibly even for you.
— Victoria Compton is the executive director of the San Juan County Economic Development Council.