Fast Internet service shouldn’t be urban-only

In many rural communities, it’s a struggle to connect efficiently to the Internet. In a society that’s increasingly dependent on such technology, access to it shouldn’t depend on where you live.

Whether it’s to check driving conditions, e-mail Grandma or read the news, more and more people use the Internet every day. People in rural areas are often left with a grim choice: go without or deal with painfully slow dial-up. But the Web has grown so complex, with large graphic, audio and video files, that using a dial-up connection is like taking a horse-drawn carriage on the freeway.

When Internet users have to tie up their telephone lines and wait hours for downloads, dial-up just doesn’t cut it anymore. High-speed Internet is no longer a luxury. It’s a primary way to seek information.

The Legislature has asked several state agencies to look for solutions, a move we applaud. But first, groups such as the state Department of Information Services and the Utilities and Transportation Commission must gather the right mix of people for the task — a list that will likely include city governments, school districts, nonprofit organizations, telephone and Internet companies, and other public and private organizations.

The final work group must deliver a report in December, and lawmakers will then decide whether to grant the go-ahead for comprehensive mapping of high-speed Internet access in Washington — where it exists and where the black holes are.

Mapping is just a first step, though. Solutions that get high-speed access to everyone must follow.

Some critics worry that the state will wind up providing telecommunications companies with free market research, but we think such concerns are outweighed by the importance of having knowledgable partners — including private Internet providers — in on these far-reaching public policy discussions. Some, such as Verizon, have already expressed interest. The input these companies can provide may prove invaluable.

The underlying importance of this initiative is making information available to all who seek it. High-speed Internet means efficient access to health care advice, voting information, employment resources and connections to family and friends.

Schools, library patrons and small businesses will benefit. Businesses can connect with customers and explain their services. Students can research projects. Citizens can access government resources.

State lawmakers unanimously agreed on the importance of equal access to information by launching this endeavor, and they must continue to pursue its ultimate goal: getting the Internet, its information and its personal freedoms to as many people as possible.

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