Definition of Innovative Programs at Issue at NTIA Roundtable

Broadband Stimulus, NTIA March 17th, 2009

, Reporter,

News | NTIA-RUS Forum | Day 1, Session 3

WASHINGTON, March 17, 2009 – Broadband adoption is widely viewed as spurring innovation, but $7.2 billion had stakeholders gathered at Monday’s public meeting on broadband funding to offer comments on what sort of “innovative programs” could make best use of the funding.

American Telemedicine Association CEO Jonathan Linkous said his organization was pleased that the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service were “taking the lead” on an issue he said had previously been spread between about a dozen federal agencies.

Telemedicine, which Linkous said could be “very broadly defined,” has potential to expand broadband services not just among health care facilities, but to homes of unserved and underserved populations as well. With the fiscal stimulus legislation providing money not just for broadband, but specifically for telemedicine, Linkous predicted a boon for his industry.

Telemedicine is traditionally associated with applications like remote links between rural clinics and major medical centers. But Linkous suggested that broadband should be brought to the home to enable better in-home care as a growing elderly population “ages-in-place.” That will require assistance that overwhelms current nursing facility capacity. “I suspect… you will see an even broader variety [of applications] than you have ever seen before.”

But those applications must coordinate with existing programs at the Health and Human Services Department and other agencies in order to be built into deployments, and not simply be “taped on,” he said. It’s important to not duplicate services or approve projects that “work against each other,” he urged, but to “bring all of them together.”

While Linkous argued for a diversity of connection endpoints for the network, American Library Association Executive Director Emily Shekatoff urged greater investment in public capacity at libaries, which she called “the premier public computer centers in America’s communities.”

Libaries are the sole source of free access in 73 percent of America, she said. And as librarians are among the most “highly trusted” groups in America, Shekatoff said they could effectively implement training programs.

Even with the access provided by the FCC’s e-Rate program, libraries still have too little bandwidth – despite needing far more than an average residence, she said. Of libraries, 60 percent report that their connections are too slow. Shekatoff said the lack of bandwidth deprives patrons of the “information hubs in [their] communities.”

The advantages of broadband to libraries only multiply with well-connected community colleges, said Jim Hermes, senior legislative analyst at the American Association for Community Colleges.

AACC agrees with most of ALA’s positions, he said. But community colleges are as much of a “crucial institution” as libraries, since they provide a link “back into the educational fold” for people during economic downturns. Also, distance learning programs for rural areas can create a “multiplier effect,” he said, as more people can take part and acquire new skills, allowing for entrepreneurship.

But OneEconomy Corporation CEO Rey Ramsey was skeptical of these claims. “It’s important to be intentional about what we’re trying to achieve,” he said. If America wants every citizen to have access to broadband, Ramsey offered a simple solution: bring it into their homes.

Americans in low income, “underserved” areas will readily adopt broadband if a deployment program focuses on “Access, Awareness and Affordability.” If Americans can access relevant content, are aware of the advantages of broadband and the services available to them, and they can afford access devices as well as service, Ramsey said there would be no question adoption would increase.

Ramsey took issue with the focus on schools and libraries. Many Americans work jobs and can’t make it to a library before closing time, he said. If the point of the stimulus program and programs like it are to get connectivity “to those who need it most,” the best way to “move the meter” on adoption is home deployment. “There’s no place like home in terms of making those connections,” he said.

When asked about the definition of an innovative program, Sheketoff cited distance learning applications, which she called “tremendous bandwidth suckers.” Schools and libraries need more bandwidth to handle the capacity, she said. “As a society, we need to make these resources available to everyone – no matter where you live or how wealthy you are.”

But Ramsey, who took care not to attack libraries in general, took issue with Sheketoff’s comments. “All studies show ‘moving the meter’ with adoption occurs at home,” he said. The two are not mutually exclusive, he conceded. But “we don’t want to create second-tier citizens [who only have access at libraries],” he cautioned. “Kids who have access at school need it at home.”

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3 Responses to “Definition of Innovative Programs at Issue at NTIA Roundtable”

  1. Gary Says:

    Proposed “Broadband Welfare” is the summation of this article. I can’t argue with the worthwhile objective to make broadband more affordable to low income households and to the poor children. I do take objective to using tax money to build out additional networks in communities with at least one provider. The primary objective should be to build the unserved areas as priorities then consider the underserviced later. Tax money should not be used to compete with private businesses that have taken the risk and used their own money to build their business as long as the level of service is considered satisfactory.
    For those low income situations NTIA through state agencies should be able to distribute Broadband certificates and computers to those that qualify. Like they did with the DTV converters broadband providers would redeem the coupons for basic broadband service. Win Win.

  2. John Harris Says:

    In response to Gary, the issue is that a provider may claim that an area is served, but many people in or around that community still can not get service. Or perhaps the quality of the service is unacceptable. So there is the second classification of “underserved” to address those situations. Most areas with a population of <25k are probably underserved. As to whether the government should provide funding to spur development in these areas it is a matter of judgement. Certainly the government has and will spend money in worse ways. In my opinion government should be consistent. If there are government programs for urban health, urban transportation etc. insurance subsidies etc, then there can be assistance for rural areas as well. It may be preferrable to have a total market economy, but that is certainly not where things are going.

  3. Brett Glass Says:

    Many people who claim that they “cannot get service” have never done so much as a Web search to determine whether there is a wireless provider who covers their area. As a rural wireless broadband provider, we hear this all the time from callers who tell us, “We didn’t know you covered our area!” This despite the fact that we advertise and can be located easily on the Web.

    As for the quality of service being “unacceptable” — ours certainly isn’t; in fact, we guarantee it. But I am sure that a would-be competitor would be willing to claim that it was so that they could get a government subsidy to come into an area I already covered.

    And would you care to substantiate your claim that “most areas with a population of <25K are probably underserved?” First of all, you do not specify the size of the geographic area in question. (A city block in Manhattan might have a population of 25,000, but I doubt that anyone would call it “underserved.”) Secondly, even small towns often have many service providers. Ours, which is at the 25,000 mark, has DSL and cable in town and four wireless providers serving the city and the area around it. And that’s not counting cellular and satellite.

    Government should not be competing with private enterprise. I’ve bloodied my knuckles for 17 years working to provide rural broadband, and the last thing I deserve after all of this sweat is to have government come in and compete unfairly with me.

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