Nov/Dec 2009

State News: August 2009


State News August: Sex and the New Media

field of dreams

In many small, rural schools, offering Advanced Placement courses simply
isn’t cost-effective. The lack of Advanced Placement courses in nearly half of our
nation’s high schools puts many students at a competitive disadvantage in college
preparation. States are using online learning to help fill the void and give all students
an opportunity to take rigorous AP courses to prepare them for college.
By Mary Branham
Expanding broadband service to the most rural parts of the country is kind of like the Kevin Costner move, Field of Dreams, only with a question:
If states build it, will customers come?
It’s that question many states are focusing on as they seek broadband grants in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. For the most part, states are leaving the infrastructure portions of the grant applications to telecom providers and instead are focusing on building the interest and, perhaps, future sustainability of the service.
Mississippi, for instance, is proposing a computing center to educate people in rural areas about what’s available on the Internet in an effort to stoke interest.
“In my state, if we put broadband and fiber out all across this state to residential customers, the majority of them don’t have a computer, the majority of them don’t know what they can access, so they’re not going to be interested,” said Gary Rawson, e-rate coordinator for the Strategic Services Division in the Mississippi Department of Information Technology.
That interest must be there for any broadband project to be sustainable, according to Nancy Bochat, president of The National Association of State Technology Directors, an affiliate of The Council of State Governments.
“The states’ major concern is the sustainability of projects associated with broadband stimulus funding,” Bochat said. “Most states have projects for which broadband grants and loans are suitable; the challenge lies in maintaining those projects once the stimulus funds are spent.”
In other words, in order to keep the service, someone has to pay for it. Usually, that means the customers.
Even with the $7.2 billion federal investment to build the service, the monthly cost of broadband may prohibit many residential customers from gaining access. The Pew Internet and American Life Project found last year that availability and price accounted for one-third of the adults without broadband service at home. They just couldn’t afford it even if it was available.
That dilemma has many in the information technology field pushing for changes to the federal Universal Service Fund, which supplements the costs of telecommunications services in a number of different ways. They’d like to see changes that would help get broadband service to people who are low-income or live in high cost areas—primarily rural areas where building infrastructure for broadband would be expensive. But any changes are likely to be controversial.
“Universal Service could be part of the solution in providing lower-rated recurring charges to a residential customer for broadband access,” said Rawson, who chairs the State E-rate Coordinators Alliance, a group of state e-rate coordinators who work with schools and libraries eligible for assistance for telecommunications and Internet access services.
But first, states are making sure people know about the benefits of broadband—including getting the fast Internet service to the places that need it the most.

Building Demand for Broadband

The first step to sustainability of broadband deployment is developing an interest in the service. In fact, a Pew Charitable Trusts’ Internet and American Life survey last year found that two-thirds of adults without high-speed Internet access cited a lack of relevance or interest.
State officials, though, believe education can help spark that interest from consumers and businesses that could profit from broadband access.
“Where there is not broadband, that definitely has an impact on options for economic development,” said Claire Bailey, Arkansas’ chief technology officer and director of the state’s Department of Information System.
She shares the example of a piece of pottery produced in small town Dumas, Ark. Broadband access broadens that small company’s marketplace across the globe, she said.
“Having that broadband ability everywhere is critical to our state so that each area of our state can prosper,” she said.
Arkansas is a rural state with lots of farmland, much of it without broadband access, Bailey said. “Those families and communities that don’t have access to broadband are really being left out of an important part of the global economy,” she said.
Connect Arkansas, a private nonprofit company, works to educate Arkansans about the role broadband can have in their lives, according to John Ahlen, president of the Arkansas Science and Technology Authority, which works with technology economic development.
“The people in these rural communities understand what it means to have access to global information and they want it,” Ahlen said. “They want it for economic development, for business opportunities and for information for things like health care.”
Mississippi is still working on building that demand. Rawson, the e-rate coordinator, said that’s the purpose behind the computing center his state is proposing. “What’s the incentive for people that can’t afford broadband, can’t afford computers or any costs associated with it?” he said.
The center, he said, will show them just how big a role the Internet and the quick access afforded by broadband can play in their lives.
“It can educate those people what is available through the Internet,” he said. “On WebMD, where they could go and self-diagnose their ailments to keep them from going to the doctor or to be better informed when they do go to the doctor. Or (they can go) on job sites where they can go to search for jobs or get online training to better themselves.
“It’s going to be a resource for their livelihood and hopefully a better way of life for them,” Rawson said.
He believes once people go to the computing centers and get a taste of all that is offered, they’ll want to have that fast access at home.

Access Where it’s Needed

Some interest in broadband access at home has been built through student use of Internet services at schools and patron use at libraries. But some states haven’t had even that luxury of broadband service.
In Wisconsin, unlike other states, not all school districts and public libraries have access to broadband—80 percent of public libraries and 20 percent of the state’s schools lack access to fiber, according to Robert Bocher, the e-rate coordinator there. While residential access is important, the need is critical in Wisconsin’s public schools and libraries, Bocher said. Those school districts, he said, are generally smaller and rural.
Bocher admits that the fiber for broadband may not be a critical issue now, but it could become one in just a few short years. “We view the availability of these (stimulus grant) funds as a great investment in the future,” he said.
In Alaska, the needs are also pronounced. Rich Greenfield, who’s worked with Alaska’s program for several years, said sustainability is important there too, but adds that 70 percent of his state’s public libraries get Internet over satellite, an expensive proposition that is really not the preferred form.
There’s a lag time and things like streaming video doesn’t work as well over satellite, he said. But Alaska, like other states, is in the process of moving its Internet service from satellite-based to land-based. The stimulus grant fund is a start, Greenfield said, but more is needed.
“We sort of view this stimulus bill program as almost a flash in the pan,” said Greenfield. “Our top concern is Universal Service reform.
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