Definitions and Broadband Measures Must Evolve, Account for On-the-Ground Realities

Broadband Stimulus, NTIA March 20th, 2009

, Reporter-Researcher,

News | NTIA-RUS Forum | Day 4, Session 3

WASHINGTON, March 20, 2009 – Debate about the broadband divide in America resurfaced at a Thursday afternoon public roundtable about how the federal government should spend $7.2 billion in broadband.

Thursday was the fourth of six days of public hearings by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service, and the afternoon discussion, about rural and unserved areas, was the final panel focus on the broadband “have-nots.”

Other topics – including interconnection obligations, the role of the states, and broadband mapping – will be considered in a public forum in Washington on Monday. Tuesday, the final day of public hearings, will raise the subjects of compliance, selection criteria and community economic development.

In his second appearance in the public forums, Geoffrey Blackwell of Chickasaw Nation Industries, Inc., and chairman of the National Congress of American Indians’ telecommunications subcommittee, said broadband technology needs an “evolving” and “scalable” definition.

Blackwell said the government and non-governmental organizations have a historic and strategic chance to meet the needs of unserved and underserved areas.

Eric Peterson, executive director of the Rural Cellular Association, said broadband technology should be advanced so as to leapfrog rural and unserved areas into a future of development. He urged a highly granular level of broadband mapping, including the use of data from the Census Bureau.

John Rose, president of the Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies, said rural and unserved areas need broadband so as to complete globally.

Consumer education would be necessary, he said, even as he warned some areas might require computers before even access issues are addressed.

Tracey Steiner, senior corporate counsel with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, said broadband is an urgent need for electric consumers. “Definitions based on population are restrictive and less than ideal,” she said.

Jocelyn Tate, a communications expert and chair of a rural broadband working group, said that penetration in rural areas is over-accounted for: it does not reflect reality on the ground in the way of service and adoption.

In addition to sparse availability of broadband in rural areas, she said that race, language, and poverty can also hinder broadband deployment.  And she urged that unserved urban areas not be neglected in a rural broadband buildout.

“The digital gap between rural and urban areas must be bridged,” she said.

Blackwell warned that historical challenges and the geopolitical terrain must not be overlooked, because “one size fits none.”

Speed, Steiner added, is a way to measure service but it is not all, “since service is relative.”

The panelists agreed that the definition of “unserved” should not be reduced to statistical analysis of individuals or areas. Rather, broadband should encompass all possible variables.

Existing realities, they also warned, cannot be reduced to the bare minimum of a report from one government agency.

Members of the public commenting at the end of the meeting raised concerns about broadband speeds, costs, sustainability and continuity of coverage.

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