WASHINGTON, September 1, 2009 – State and local governments said during a Federal Communications Commission workshop on Tuesday that extending broadband is important for economic development purposes.
Among the programs discussed at the workshop were those with the past goal of expanding broadband services into areas which were once inaccessible to any form of internet service, and providing education for these services.
“Areas of the country that don’t have access to broadband services of at least 10 Megabits [per second (Mbps)] in the next five years will be as economically disadvantaged as those areas in the first half of the 20th century that did not have paved roads or electricity,” said Ray Baum, commissioner of the Oregon Public Utilities Commission and head of the National Association of Regulatory Utilities Commissioners committee on telecommunications.
He said that 10 Mbps was the minimum necessary as the base of broadband for services, including health care and education.
However, before the expansion of accessible broadband reaches rural areas, digital literacy, or education in the use of computers and broadband services is a necessity, said Jane Smith Patterson, executive director of e-NC Authority in North Carolina.
“There was a development at the local level [called] public computer centers,” she said. Such public computer centers allowed citizens without access to computers could go into the centers and receive education of the computer and services that are connected with it.
“There are people who have no idea what kind of access their computer is connected to,” said Craig Orgeron, director of the strategic services division of Mississippi’s information technology department.
This kind of input is one reason why Mississippi and North Carolina are among the states with a digital literacy curriculum.
“[In North Carolina,] a person cannot receive a high school diploma without passing a digital literacy test,” Patterson said. “They can get a certificate, but cannot receive a diploma with passing the test.”
Education in digital literacy has been taught in North Carolina between first grade and seventh grade. After seventh grade, students can begin to take the test.
But as these programs target students, there remains a need to educating workers in businesses that are already connected to the Internet, panelists said.
According to Virginia’s Deputy Secretary of Technology Karen Jackson, in the late 1990s, the discussion of broadband began to surface. However, the topic of “where broadband was going” was not the focus. Rather, it was what users were going to do with that connection.
This led to the creation of online toolkits for businesses to access. Such toolkits allow businesses to be educated in using broadband – and what accessible broadband would do to their organization.
The successes of both toolkits and the digital literacy curriculum, the next key step should be making broadband accessible to rural areas, panelists said.
In the next six months, the FCC should be asked to recognize these smaller communities’ needs – as well as the consequences of not having broadband in the area in question, panelists said.
According to Baum, if rural areas go without having a broadband service, “[These] smaller communities or cities will most likely be representing ghost towns of the west.”