News | NTIA-RUS Forum | Day 3, Session 1
March 19, 2009 – Arizonans and native Americans at a public forum in Flagstaff, Ariz., urged a broadband buildout that puts connectivity of disadvantaged groups at the heart of the federal stimulus spending.
The discussion was the first of three panels on Wednesday’s field hearing of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service.
On Thursday, the fourth of six days of NTIA/RUS public hearings on how to spend $7.2 billion in the federal broadband stimulus, heads back to Washington. The forums will continue in Washington on Monday and Tuesday.
As with Tuesday’s field hearing in Las Vegas, the digital divide between America’s wealthy bicoastal techorati was contrasted with the wide open, and often offline, regions of the American west.
The first of three panel discussions during the joint meeting of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service Wednesday focused on the state of “vulnerable populations” within the United States, the need to drive demand for broadband, and the role of strategic institutions.
Sara Pressler, mayor of Flagstaff, said the unserved and underserved peoples of Arizona still need broadband for health, education and other pressing needs.
“Serving and protecting vulnerable populations is important. Rural and tribal communities without either broadband or electric power need to benefit, too,” she said.
She continued: “Rural communities have great potential because we know what it means to work with limited resources and to get things done.”
Broadband development, she said, would be vital not just for neglected tribes and lands but wider America’s “national health and security.”
As with renewable energy, broadband could go a long way in transforming the lives of individuals in congressional districts that still do not have power.
Fred Estrella, chief information officer at the Northern Arizona University, said broadband technology would help rural and tribal communities “access educational resources and opportunities.”
“Tribal and rural communities in unserved and under-served areas could benefit from our university’s online offerings and utilize the opportunity to educate themselves and their children in ways that are not available today,” he said.
Maureen Jackson, information technology director with Coconino County, Ariz., said there exist 18,000 miles of land in the state that need broadband technology, particularly for “emergency responders.”
“We still don’t have infrastructure to meet the needs of emergency responders,” she said, adding that such infrastructure would need to be located both centrally as well as within surrounding communities.
Loris Taylor, executive director of Native Public Media, said broadband will be needed for the inclusion of neglected tribes and rural areas into the media economy, and other services.
“We need broadband so as to stream content, and foster political and electoral participation,” she said, before asking: “Whose democracy is it when so many voices are left out?”
Indian tribes, she said, have both been unserved and underserved, even as she said their socio-economic and political potential would be unlocked by broadband to their benefit.
Internet education and other services from broadband would be a boon, she said, but warned that such must be accompanied by neutrality of source and destination.
Gary Uhles, assistant general manager, San Carlos Apache Telecommunication Utility, said his company wants to reach Arizona’s outlying communities.
“We want to expand beyond boundaries of known tribal reservations,” he said.
Carroll Onsae, general manager of Hopi Telecommunications, said there will be need to replace copper wires with fiber optic wires to expand the speed and capabilities of broadband.
She said the new infrastructure will require massive capitalization, and that with increased knowledge of technology on the part of the population there would be increased demand for related services.
“Fiber optics is obviously the way to go; no doubt it would cost everyone more,” he said.
Rosalyn Boxer, director of workforce policy with Arizona’s Department of Commerce Economic Development, argued that “without broadband, businesses will lose their market share.”
“Businesses in rural areas need to know how broadband can drive demand, that we can telecommute, and so much more,” she said, adding that rural and immigrant communities would need greater confidence in using the new technology.
During the public comment session, the panelists argued that tribal and rural areas need to “grow their own broadband.” Many also decried what they considered the practice of “red-lining,” or limiting the build-out of telecommunications infrastructures to wealthier areas.
A member of the audience expressed worry that public libraries, in most instances the only reliable source of internet access, are under the threat of increased cuts in their budgets.
Yet another audience member said that scarce resources, the definition of “unserved” and “under-served,” preferential treatment towards current and former borrowers could negatively impact the NTIA/RUS application process.
Others said draft guidelines are needed for writing broadband grant application proposals, and that citizens must agree on priorities so to blunt the influence of “special interests.”
Taylor counseled that traditional areas of disagreement ought not be allowed to interfere with making progress on broadband deployment. Concepts and passions should triumph over divisive territorial agendas, she said.