CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- We've been to the moon; now let's focus on rural America.
More than 25 million Americans lack broadband access to the Internet, and approximately 73 percent of this group live in rural areas. The consequence is the creation of "another" America: one without timely and reliable access to financial, education, medical, entertainment and other online resources; low- to no-growth communities that offer fewer opportunities for new business formation; and a reduction in population as families move to areas with broadband that offer much more to their children.
Access to the Internet makes a difference: the Federal Communications Commission reports that rural areas lacking such access tend to have a population with less education and lower income levels than rural areas with access.
Not surprisingly, business cases rarely come out on the side of more investment in low-population areas. The infrastructure required is costly, and the payback can be slow -- not something private investors want to hear. That's why the right incentives, combined with corporate investment, are realistic ways to install the infrastructure needed to deploy and operate high-quality networks capable of delivering voice and broadband services to small towns, rural areas and tribal lands.
Rural America is worth the investment. In February 2011, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski stated, "Broadband ... is the indispensable infrastructure of our digital economy. ... Broadband enables businesses -- big and small -- to grow and hire. It is an unprecedented platform for collaboration and innovation -- allowing inventors in their dorm rooms and garages to take big ideas, share them with the world and build some of the powerhouse companies of the digital economy."
Yet powerhouses alone won't propel our nation's economic recovery. Small and medium-sized businesses, work-at-home entrepreneurs and community colleges offering online courses for personal or professional growth will play a role if the people and tools are there. It's happening in West Virginia.
Blue Smoke Salsa, in Ansted, depends more than ever on its broadband service to expand sales. That means Blue Smoke can serve a broad market from a small Fayette County town. In Mercer County, Clover Dew Cookie Creations uses broadband to gather orders so it can ship its cookies to customers across the nation.
West Virginia entrepreneurs now have unprecedented opportunity to build their brands while keeping their operations in their hometowns. High-quality communications services have opened the door for their success.
Frontier is proud to be the largest communications provider focused on rural America and to serve areas such as Ansted and rural Mercer County. We are the top provider of broadband in West Virginia and many of the other 26 states we serve. Frontier is committed to building the voice and data networks that will serve as a catalyst for community development and overall economic growth in our markets.
Frontier invests hundreds of millions of dollars in our networks every year and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future because this is our company's and our nation's future. We take pride in our 100 percent U.S.-based work force and programs that make hiring military veterans and reservists a priority. In the past 12 months, we have hired 1,000 new employees, 20 percent of whom are military vets. More than 13 percent of our work force has served America in the armed forces.
Broadband connectivity throughout all of America can be the thread that unites us all and helps pull our nation up again. Over the past two years in West Virginia, Frontier has worked with the state to bring broadband to thousands of residents and businesses. We have invested in a fiber backbone infrastructure that connects cities, libraries, schools, hospitals and government service facilities. The network improvements and the access to broadband have moved West Virginia from the bottom five states in the country to the top five. Economic development has picked up, and entrepreneurship is alive and well. Frontier is focused on taking this model to the other rural areas we serve throughout the United States.
Our country already aimed for and reached the moon. Now it's time to aim for connectivity throughout rural America. We know vibrant communities and jobs can be created while we preserve a lifestyle that many Americans prefer. A public/private partnership like Frontier has with the government in West Virginia is a model that can be duplicated to eliminate the digital divide and establish "one America" for the future of our country and our children.
Wilderotter is CEO and chairwoman of Frontier Communications.