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Technology Opportunities Program

Connecting Broadband Networks and Applications in NTIA Proposals

in Broadband Stimulus/Expert Opinion/NTIA by

Editor’s Note: The following guest commentary appears by special invitation of BroadbandCensus.com. BroadbandCensus.com does not necessary endorse the views in the commentary, but invites officials, experts and individuals interested in the state of broadband to offer commentaries of their own. To offer a commentary, please e-mail commentary@broadbandcensus.com. Not all commentaries may be published.

By Don Samuelson, Guest Commentary, BroadbandCensus.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill., July 19, 2009 – There were three major messages from the TV Worldwide-BroadbandCensus.com webcast and discussion with NTIA Deputy Associate Administrator Anthony (“Tony”) Wilhelm on Thursday, July 9, 2009.

First, the overall design of the grant program seems to track the design of the old NTIA Technology Opportunities Program, which is not surprising given the able involvement of Tony Wilhelm in both.

Second, there is going to be maximum awards for those applications which attempt to solve multiple policy objectives, on the “biggest bang for the stimulus buck” theory.

Third, the states are going to be influential in the evaluation system, to the extent that their prioritization efforts are transparent and fair.

It would be useful for the folks who have been tracking the NTIA and Rural Utilities Service stimulus efforts as “network-promoting” funding programs to put real energy into populating the network applications with practical application and adoption strategies. Exactly what is the real-world payoff that is going to come from the network deployment?

I don’t sense that the “build it and they will come” argument is going to pass muster. The identification of the “positive externalities” of the network deployment are going to have to be addressed upfront in a clear and logical manner. And that will not be easy.

Broadband and Public Housing

But let me suggest a couple of examples on how this might work, starting with the technology-starved industry of public housing. Most public housing developments spend tremendous amounts of money – inefficiently – on security and energy.

Money spent on “more guards” and “more armed guards” could achieve much better security results at much less cost with tenant recognition and electronic surveillance systems. Energy control and systems monitoring efforts could be more efficient through the “sensing” and control devices made possible by broadband. Work orders could be filled faster and with better quality control through interactive systems.

While there are tremendous cost savings achievable in public housing through the creative uses of broadband, the bigger payback will come from converting “warehouses for the poor” to self-sufficiency-oriented support systems.

The same broadband network that creates savings in the operating costs of a building can connect all of the units – and low income families – to the benefits of the Internet. This can take place through the development of on-site computer learning centers for technology skills assessment and training, refurbished computers or thin clients in the individual unit and a concentrated effort to promote internet adoption and use.

There are thousands of public housing authorities in the United States, in big urban cities and in relatively small rural towns. While the program problems in big cities and rural towns are different, they share a common deficiency in their use of technology and the Internet.

There is relatively little in internet training for seniors or for workforce development, self-sufficiency and remedial education programs for very low income families. NTIA applications demonstrating collaboration between the local housing authority and the network to develop and maintain practical adoption programs would warrant extra credit in the competition, particularly if the application could show how the proposed collaboration could be replicated in housing authorities across the country.

Broadband and Education

The connection of network applications to public education should be a clear winning strategy. It’s clear that the use of technology platforms in education can generate significant improvements in student engagement and performance. It seems self-evident but hard to quantify. In large part, the evaluation difficulty relates to the problem of the identification and quantification of dependent and independent variables.

Exactly what is the cause of the troubling educational outcomes: too little time spent in the classroom, the lack of parent involvement, insufficient effort by students, the lack of teacher skills with computer-aided education, the general problems of distressed communities leaking into the classroom? It is clearly all of these.

So what are the contributions broadband can make to these seemingly intractable difficulties? Project RED is a research effort funded by Intel and Apple to assess the impact of technology investments in 3,000 technology rich United States school districts. E-mail info@projectRED.org for more information. It will involve interviews with 3,000 schools with rich technology available to all students.

The report on these interviews will involve: (1) the actual uses of technology for administrative and educational purposes; (2) the uses of technology by type of application; and (3) the cost savings attributable to technology.

These research efforts are intended to document and to promote understanding of the practical benefits of “21st Century Schools” and “21st Century Classrooms.” The basic components of these 21st Century Classrooms will involve: (1) portable furniture; (2) internet-access devices on every learning surface; (3) a central information control system available to the teacher (i.e. facilitator of learning); (4) an internet-connected large screen “white board” with multi-media capacities; (5) on-line curriculum; (6) technology-fluent teachers – general contractor facilitators of learning; (7) simple-to-use and maintenance free equipment.

There were 500 exhibitors at the recent National Education Computing Conference in Washington, from June 28 – July 1, 2009, discussing these very topics.

New efforts are beginning to extend the time and place of public education to community learning centers (libraries and computer technology centers) and the home. If the key technology components of the 21st Century Classrooms become “thin clients” (essentially terminals with Internet connections) and “cloud computing,” all parts of the system connected via the Internet, it’s an easy jump to add the home and the parents to the local learning network.

This can be a very inexpensive way to extend the school day and school year by integrating the use of existing capital assets into the system. A student can log off at the end of a class, and reconnect immediately to all of the previously school-centric resources at the library, a church or the “Home Learning Zone” in the apartment or house. It’s likely that Project RED will describe the few school districts and rich communities with such a system already in place, although perhaps without cloud computing. The goal is to make this “local learning network” sufficiently clear, affordable and effective to be replicated in all of the nation’s schools and classrooms.

Adding Home Learning Zones and Public Housing to the Local Learning Network

With the technology-leveraging capacities of the Internet, thin clients and cloud computing, it is possible – through institutional collaboration – to create Neighborhood Learning Networks, the objective of which is to prepare all students for higher education, the modern workplace and motivation for lifelong learning.

Once the local network is in place, it should be relatively easy to add “employment” and “business incubation” to the objectives of the Neighborhood Network, in effect creating a “Neighborhood Learning, Employment and Business Incubation Network.” These are the types of collaboration that need to be planned and implemented to create winning NTIA BTOP proposals.

Donald S. Samuelson has more than 30 years of experience in government-assisted housing and real estate development. He has a passion for applying broadband to provide solutions in the fields of education and training. E-mail him at DSSA310@aol.com, or contact him by phone at 847-420-1732.

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