You snooze you lose on Digital 395; Study says Eastsiders should hone a digital strategy now

One of these days, the Digital 395 project will be completed.

It might take a year to get the big, fat Internet broadband pipe working at top efficiency—maybe even a little bit longer than that.

But when more high-speed access becomes available to Eastern Sierra residents and businesses, the question is if people will be ready to take advantage of it.

An exhaustive new study by the Sierra Business Council (SBC), presented to the Mammoth Lakes Town Council and Mono County Board of Supervisors this week, suggests the time is now for Eastside businesses and individuals to begin mapping their digital strategies.

To fail in creating a digital strategy would be a failure to take advantage of “the single most important opportunity to expand sales, profits and employment in rural small businesses in decades,” the report stated.

“This issue of how high-speed communications is actually going to affect small businesses is critical,” said Mayor Pro Tem Rick Wood from the dais during the council meeting Wednesday.

“This is a wave that is going to sweep across the nation over the next 20 to 30 years, and if we don’t start getting a handle on it now, it’s really going to be devastating for small businesses.”

The authors of the 175-page report, using data and observations from 80 individuals on the Eastside and called “Eastern Sierra: Innovation and Prosperity,” said many people wouldn’t recognize the digital opportunity if it came up and bit them in the foot.

“Lack of economic diversification has been an underlying economic issue in Inyo and Mono counties for many decades,” the report stated.

“One bad winter, one closed road or one failed industry can have a disproportionate impact on a rural community.

“Both counties continue to lag behind historic growth in the State of California and often behave counter to state growth and industry trends.

“The decline of natural resource industries has also left these two counties vulnerable to economic shock from a decline in any single sector.”

Later, the SBC’s Steve Frisch, who presented the report, said another historical factor hindering economic growth has been the absence of research universities to help inform, study and guide the local area.

To examine the overall economic picture, the authors divided the Mono and Inyo economies into five economic “prosperity clusters.”

The clusters are interrelated. Growth in any one cluster encourages growth in the others.

At the center of the stage is Internet technology, which would affect the other four clusters of renewable energy, tourism and the arts, recreation, and agriculture.

“What higher speed service does exist is spotty and inconsistent, suffering numerous outages or isolation events,” the authors wrote in the report.

“As a result, broadband adoption rates are very low on the east side, compared to the rest of the State of California—only about 14 percent compared to more than 50 percent statewide.

“In addition, because broadband adoption rates are higher for higher income individuals and businesses, the ‘digital divide’ often leaves those in lower socioeconomic categories behind as the digital economy develops.”

The result has had a deadening effect, the report stated.

“This condition leaves Eastside businesses and community assets isolated from access to national and global markets, and travelers isolated from real time digital information about the region.

“Connectivity has become so much a part of modern life that many families or business people will not even consider traveling to a region that does not offer access to high-speed communications.”

The authors of the report said the Digital 395 project would go a long way toward solving the most vexing problem: access.

In addition, the report suggested there are quantifiable projections of what Digital 395 might mean in the near future.

First, the report suggests 500 new jobs would open immediately related to the installation of the broadband infrastructure.

Moreover, it would expand entrepreneurial platforms for new businesses and expand medical, educational, commercial and military applications.

But there is little time to waste, even a year out, the report suggested.

“The primary recommendation is to immediately embark on a regional e-commerce development and deployment strategy with the goal of boosting market access and increasing the revenue for small businesses and community assets.”

The report included a variety of government and private resources for helping businesses develop digital strategies, all aimed at creating a digital business environment that would fall in line with the rest of the U.S. and global economies.