WASHINGTON March 30, 2011- The Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition assembled broadband stimulus award winners and government officials for their inaugural broadband summit on Tuesday to share solutions and success in solving digital literacy and adoption issues.
The SHLBC, formed two years ago, comprises libraries, hospitals, schools, non-profit groups and corporations that seek to further broadband availability for community anchor institutions.
New Mexico’s State Librarian, Susan Oberlander, provided one of the most descriptive presentations on the state’s digital literacy program.
“By holding the programs in the libraries we found that the programs instantly gained credibility,” Oberlander said. “People already trust the library as a source of good information.”
Oberlander went on to describe how the state contacted telecommunications providers for assistance with developing and implementing the digital literacy and training programs, but the telecommunications providers were not receptive to providing assistance.
As part of the training programs, the attendees participate in broadband usage surveys that track their interests and progress.
“Our preliminary findings are quite interesting,” said Oberlander. “We found that a large number of small businesses that come to our workshops already have broadband, but they want to expand their knowledge of computers.”
The surveys also found that cost of service and lack of a computer are the largest barriers to adoption.
Mary Ann Stiefvater, Cultural Education Specialist at New York State Library, agreed with Oberlander’s findings regarding the use of libraries as digital literacy training centers.
“People already go to the library to use computers; it becomes a natural place for them to learn more,” Stiefyater said.
Stiefyater also talked about the benefits of training the small businesses: “Libraries face the same challenges of developing a web presence as small businesses do. The libraries have learned what works and are now able to train small businesses in the best practices.”
Congresswoman Doris Matsui (D-CA), who is co-chair of the Congressional High Tech Caucus, presented the first keynote address of the summit with the announcement that she will reintroduce legislation to expand Lifeline and Link-Up to include broadband. The Lifeline and Link-Up programs currently provide subsidies to consumers to help pay for telephone service and connection costs.
“Community anchor institutions are critical to our communities,” Matsui said. “By keeping the internet free and open while improving digital literacy programs we can bridge the digital divide.”
She also stated that she supports the Federal Communication Commission’s plan to update the Universal Service Fund (USF) to include broadband access.
“With the current budgetary realities it’s unlikely we will see another large round of funding, but the USF is a viable alternative,” said Matthew Hussey, Advisor to Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), during a panel on the Congressional perspective.
Lawrence Strickling, Administrator of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA), presented the second keynote, commending the assembled group for its tireless work.
“The grant programs are still new, but they are already producing results,” Strickling said. “During the last quarter they have already created one thousand new jobs, installed four thousand new computers and held over 150 thousand hours of training, and our middle mile projects are in talks with over 200 last mile providers to provide connections.”
Of the 233 BTOP projects, only two have been cancelled.
“We worked with these two award winners to try and salvage the projects but they declined our help so unfortunately the projects were canceled,” Strickling said. “Both projects were in the early stages and there was a minimal loss of federal funds.”
According to Strickling, the funds which are not used by the grantees will be given back to the Treasury department to help decrease the deficit.
Strickling then provided the audience with an overview of the National Broadband Map which the NTIA unveiled in February. He called the map a “first try” and promised that with each update the map’s accuracy will improve. With regard to the depth of the data, Strickling said that originally the NTIA wanted to collect address-level data, however, internet service providers told the agency that they did not keep data at that granular of a level. Instead, the NTIA settled on census-block level data, which is more precise than the zip-code level data the FCC collects.
“When we compiled the map we asked internet service providers for their advertised speeds,” Strickling said, “but with anchor institutions we were able to obtain actual speeds and many of them said they did not receive the speeds they wanted or needed. Our anchor institutions are being underserved.”
According to Strickling educational researchers have found that schools need 100 megabits per second (Mbps) for every 100 students, but most schools are not able to provide that level of speed.
When asked by the audience about how looming budget cuts will affect the NTIA’s oversight of the BTOP grantees, Strickling said that both of the continuing resolutions that Congress has passed have included funds for oversight and he does not suspect the funds to be cut in the final budget resolution.