Documentary coverage of IGF-USA by the Imagining the Internet Center

IGF-USA panel: Supplying broadband access nationwide continues to be growing concern

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access_panel IGF_USA 09 copyPanelists articulated the challenges and opportunities associated with providing wide broadband Internet access to rural communities in the United States during a discussion at the Internet Governance Forum-USA Oct. 2 in Washington, D.C. The expert panel, consisting of people with various professional and personal backgrounds, discussed how access impacts their specific communities. The topics they covered included:

  • Access in rural USA with special focus on issues faced by Native American communities
  • Access issues in U.S. urban centers; perspectives on issues of technical build-out and demand
  • Roles of government in promoting access
  • Lessons learned from libraries and distance-learning initiatives in extending access

All panelists agreed that open Internet access remains vital to the steady, free flow of information, but complications remain about how to ensure people outside of urban areas can gain entrance to the online world. Here are the specific discussions the panelists had.

igfaccess2Brian Tagaban, representative of The Navajo Nation Telecommunications Regulatory Commission

Tagaban said Native Americans must foster their traditions and community within their reservations, but they end up losing members to urban centers when they have to find employment. He said providing broadband access would allow Native Americans to stay connected to their communities.

“We have 155 sites around the reservation,” he said, “but to connect all those sites with some sort of sustainable broadband is unsustainable for us, so we have to pick and choose what sites have access.”
Tagaban said that, after conferring with experts around the world, The Navajo Nation Telecommunications Regulatory Commission decided to build their own infrastructure. “We should start taking control of our information needs,” he said.

He said the commission has begun working on creating an infrastructure, but questions remain about how to make the set up sustainable. For example, Tagaban said the commission still needs to figure out who could manage the telecommunications set up. But he also wants to make sure that the infrastructure is limited in scope so that there’s room for communities to grow.

For now, though, the immediate concern is getting access to all Native Americans.

“As we go forward one of the things we know we’re going to have to deal with is some sort of broadband plan,” Tagaban said. “How are we doing to get this out to the small rural areas? How are we going to get people to adopt it. With 50 percent unemployment, it’s going to be hard. We’re toying with idea of free Internet.”

Raquel Noriega, director of strategic partnerships for Connected Nation Inc.

Connected Nation is a not-for-profit organization that has been investigating how the government and private sectors can push broadband to parts of society that are not adopting it quickly enough. Noriega said they’re attempting to bridge the domestic digital divide, so to speak, and she said there’s both a supply-side and demand-side challenge to their endeavor.

“By supply, I mean making broadband available to all American citizens,” she said. “We need infrastructure to take part in the information technology revolution that is taking place in front of us, and it’s more of a rural challenge. By demand-side challenge, we mean a focus on adoption. To really realize the benefits to the country and the economy, we don’t need just big pipes, we need people to use them.”

Connected Nation, which has existed since 2001, attempts to entice private investment into access issues.

“Clearly the best way to do that was to showcase there was more pent up demand that private investors may not have acknowledged in their research.”

Noriega said Connected Nation attempts to support rural communities with limited access to the Internet in two other key ways: using institutions that are already in place and providing benchmarks that locales can look toward.

In rural areas, these things are a lot more spread apart, and therefore one needs to engage what is already there—associations, hospitals, libraries, governments—because those already exist. We bring data and communication to local communities. We’re trying to empower them with a sense of where they are today and then they can benchmark themselves with other communities and start understanding what they need to do to catch up.  – Raquel Noriega

Nancy E. Weiss, general counsel for the Institute of Museum and Library Services

Weiss brought a little history and perspective to her address, claiming that a couple of key historical American figures would favor open access.

“If Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were around today,” Weiss said, “they would be at the forefront of public access computing and the Internet.”

Weiss said the continuing struggle of providing widespread Internet access is analogous to past governmental efforts to make libraries accessible to rural towns and communities.

“The whole idea was to develop a network of library services throughout the nation so people had access to information and education,” she said. “It shows the importance of ensuring that people have access.”

Weiss said libraries are still the sole source of free Internet access in 72 percent of urban communities, and 90 percent of all libraries provide training in computers, which she said is vitally important because “it’s one thing to have (the Internet), it’s another thing to know how to use it.”

Derrick L. Cogburn, associate professor of international relations and director of the Center for Research on Collaboratories and Technology Enhanced Learning Communities

Cogburn may not have articulated the idea of “collaboratories” first, but he’s certainly using them to their fullest potential in academia.

Cogburn has taught a global graduate seminar on disability and development the last 10 years that brings together students from universities in the United States and South Africa. He said the overarching question behind beginning the seminar was, “When you have all these knowledge resources that exist around the world, how do you get them to work together even if they’re not in the same place?”

The answer? Collaboratories.

The term is nothing new. Physical scientists have used collaboratories (a combination of collaboration and laboratories) for a couple of decades now to share research and innovations. But Cogburn said the need for these virtual environments is becoming more necessary in governmental, private and university sectors.

“We need to be able to work in global virtual teams,” he said. “We need to be able to work with people who are not physically in the same environment with you. We’re working in a multi-stakeholder environment.”

Cogburn said collaboratories are all about creating centers without walls, universities without boundaries. And the hope is that these kinds of set ups allow for greater access among people worldwide.

“We want to intersect with students in virtual space,” he said.

-Colin Donohue, http://www.imaginingtheinternet.org

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