WASHINGTON, December 9, 2009 – Mayors and state elected officials emphasized the value and importance of local engagement in initiatives designed to promote high-speed internet access at a Wednesday morning workshop at the Federal Communications Commission.
Three Commissioners plus Chief Diversity Officer Mark Lloyd gathered to discuss the particular role that local and state governments have in promoting broadband for under-served communities.
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn reminded the audience that that the local officials play a key role in recognizing where there are broadband gaps – and in bridging the disconnect in trust between the communities and the federal policy makers.
Eugene Grant, mayor of Seat Pleasant, Md., and vice president of the National Conference of Black Mayors, echoed Clyburn’s words. He said mayors and city governments are in the best positions to assess needs of their communities, and to be the most proactive.
“Municipal governments are in the best position to engage in broadband mapping to ascertain who connected and unconnected,” he said. “Municipal governments can easily find areas in need of most improvement and can define broadband opportunities a way that state and federal governments cannot.”
Grant also spoke of the Digital Harmony program in Tallahassee, Fla., which provides broadband home access, digital training, mentoring and support to sixth graders whose families cannot afford it.
The program has been a success, he said, but it can be very hard to find information about such programs. Grant said the agency should ensure that the national broadband plan include information about successful adoption programs, and how municipal governments can help.
Robert Steele, commissioner of the Second District of Cook County, in Illinois, cited One Economy’s Digital Communities program. He defined the program as a public-private partnership at the municipal level that delivered broadband to public access centers, created relevant content online, and established opportunities for digital literacy training to help communities understand how to improve their lives.
Steele said that after one year, 82 percent to 86 percent of the minority community houses in the program used the Internet at home, as opposed to the national average of 48 percent.
Additionally, after one year, 92 percent of the participants continued to use the Internet in their home and only one-third were still receiving the free access provided by One Economy. Many households became self-supported users of the initiatives, he said.
The FCC’s Lloyd asked all the panelists about where the funding comes from for literacy programs. Are the states coming up with creative ways to solve the problems?
Calvin Smyre, president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, and a Georgia state representative, admitted that states have not placed a priority on these issues owing to the recession.
The way to solve the problem, Smyre said, is to raise the program from a public policy perspective and make it a state and national priority. A direct correlation to public safety can elevate an issue.
“By working with local and city government states can come up with creative ways to elevate digital literacy to a quality of life issue which in turn will make it more of a funding apparatus,” he said.
Grant, of Seat Pleasant, also added that the key to addressing funding lies in partnerships. The Digital Harmony program would not have taken off without meaningful public-private partnerships. The corporate community should be engaged and help fund initial innovation, he said, because it creates an increased customer base for them.
Lloyd also asked Grant about how local community officials balance competing broadband demand from public safety, schools, and community organizations.
Grant responded by stressing the importance of engaging the public and getting them to understand that bringing broadband to the community bring access to the world. That, in turn, can accommodate many different interests.
In trying to address communication between the federal, state, and local governments, Steele, of Cook County, said that while local efforts to promote broadband have the advantage of more complete knowledge, federal and state efforts have better funding and more resources for better data-collection.
“Ideally, the national broadband plan would include municipal implementation, accompanied by federal support,” he said.
Additionally, federal lawmakers should make sure that public housing projects are wired for broadband, that the E-Rate is expanded to include digital literacy for adult learners, and that the Universal Service Fund include broadband in its list of supported services.
In Washington, D.C., housing developments have collaborated with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to install broadband technology in new developments.
Gus West, board chair and president of the Hispanic Institute, made an important point when he pointed out that every community needs to be assessed individually. A rural town in Kansas must be dealt with differently than a community in inner-city Chicago.
It boils down to why each individual needs to be on the Internet, he said.
In order to apply for government benefits, a mother needs to have an e-mail address; in order to monitor her children in school, she will need access to the school listserv account; and in order to apply for a job, she must go online.