This month I had the honor of hosting our Federal, State and local partners as we formally kicked off the construction phase of the One Maryland: Inter-County Broadband Network (ICBN) Recovery Act funded-project. This project is important to me because it will allow the State of Maryland to bring sorely needed broadband resources to every corner of the State and foster cooperation across many layers of government.
The ICBN is just one leg of a three-legged stool that we hope makes Maryland the most wired state in the nation. Last fall, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's (ARRA) Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) granted the One Maryland Broadband Network (OMBN) $115 million. Howard County is managing a $72 million pool of BTOP funds in Central Maryland. The State of Maryland forms the second leg, and is partnering with an agency called the Maryland Broadband Cooperative (MDBC). Together, those two groups are using an additional $43 million to serve the more rural regions in Southern and Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.
We expect that when construction is completed in 2013, the overall project will have installed approximately 1,300 miles of fiber and delivered broadband connections to over 1,000 anchor institutions across the state: schools, community colleges, public safety agencies, libraries, government facilities and hospitals.
Yesterday I was happy to participate in a panel discussion about broadband at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) annual conference in San Antonio. NALEO members recognize that broadband Internet is one of the tools necessary to help their communities thrive in today's economy. In fact, I think that any conference focused on building stronger communities should include a discussion of broadband - it's a critical ingredient for job creation, economic growth, and improving education, health care, and public safety.
I talked about challenges and opportunities. NTIA's data show that although 90-95 percent of Americans live in areas with access to broadband, only 68 percent of households subscribe to the service. In fact, more than 28 percent of Americans do not use the Internet in any location, which means they are cut off from countless educational and job opportunities.
The issue is even greater for Latinos. While the Internet subscribership rate for Hispanics increased by five percentage points last year, it is still only 45 percent. Even after adjusting for socioeconomic factors like income and education, Latinos still significantly lag the national rate in broadband adoption.
Our research shows that those who lack broadband at home most commonly cite lack of interest or need as the primary reason. Interestingly, while those are certainly factors for Hispanic non-adopters, they most often cite affordability as the primary reason. So there is no single solution to bridging the digital divide.
But the good news is that NTIA, and others in the Obama administration, are working on many fronts to expand broadband access and adoption, including efforts targeted to Hispanics and other communities where broadband is underutilized, such as rural Americans, seniors, people with disabilities, and other minorities.
Supplies on hand? Check.
Equipment cataloged? Check.
Student union volunteers standing by? Check.
Setting up a public computer center is no small task. Fortunately, one BTOP project, Philadelphia’s Freedom Rings, created a step-by-step account of a recent “Setup Day” for a local public computer center. The article details the steps the grantee and local community members took to get the center up and running and offers tips on items such as laying out the classroom, cataloging equipment, and installing an operating system.
Public computer centers can be a lifeline for those who cannot afford a computer or Internet access at home. Many BTOP-funded public computer centers also provide training for people to develop the skills needed to use technology effectively and participate in the 21st century workforce.
This account can be a helpful resource for other public computer grantees – or other groups that are developing their own computer centers.
We encourage you to take a look at “How to Create a Public Computer Center” on the website of The New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative, a contractor for the City of Philadelphia’s Freedom Rings project.
By sharing best practices, BTOP grantees can leverage their efforts to benefit other grant recipients and the broader community going forward as we work to help close the digital divide.
Congratulations to the volunteers and workers that participated in the Freedom Rings Setup Day!
Research confirms that digital opportunity depends not only on access to computers and broadband, but the competencies necessary to successfully navigate the online world and be more competitive in the 21st century. America’s libraries are on the forefront of connecting learners of all ages with formal and informal digital literacy skills training, as well as access to a wide range of technology resources.
For these reasons, the American Library Association is pleased to collaborate with the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration to support DigitalLiteracy.gov. This new portal is an important first step in collecting and sharing class materials, research, and online learning tools. We look forward to greatly expanding the content available as librarians, educators and other practitioners engage with the website.
From their inception, libraries of all kinds have had the development, promotion, and advancement of literacy at the core of their mission. Now libraries combine trained staff, technology infrastructure and robust electronic collections to meet diverse needs that continue to change and grow. School librarians teach the skills necessary to find and evaluate web resources, and they support use of online collaborative tools that help ensure our students leave school ready for higher education and the 21st century workforce. Information literacy is now considered by several accreditation associations as a key outcome for college students.
And more than 90 percent of public libraries provide formal and informal technology training to their patrons. In 2009, 30 million job-seekers used computers to search and apply for jobs at public libraries.
On Tuesday, I joined a group of Hispanic community development leaders in San Francisco to launch the Latino Tech-Net Initiative, a Recovery Act project spearheaded by the Mission Economic Development Agency, or MEDA, which is equipping 17 computer centers in 11 cities across the country with equipment, software, and training to help Latino entrepreneurs and small businesses build online skills, spur local economic development, and support job creation in their communities.
The “digital divide” remains a serious issue for the Latino community, and MEDA is on the front lines of addressing this problem. Data from NTIA’s Digital Nation report show that the broadband adoption rate among Hispanic households is only 56.9 percent - more than ten percent lower than the overall national rate. In fact, even after adjusting for socioeconomic characteristics like income and education, Latino households significantly lag White households in broadband adoption.
Through Recovery Act projects like Latino Tech-Net, we are working to bridge the technology gap among economically vulnerable populations such as minorities, low-income communities, people with disabilities and seniors. We know there is no simple ‘one size fits all’ solution to closing the digital divide and that a combination of targeted approaches makes sense.
Today, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke launched DigitalLiteracy.gov, a new online portal to help Americans find jobs and obtain the 21st century skills being sought by today’s employers.
The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) developed DigitalLiteracy.gov in partnership with nine Federal agencies, with the goal of creating an online hub for librarians, educators, and other digital literacy practitioners to share content and best practices. Through DigitalLiteracy.gov, NTIA is making available to all Americans the methods for improving broadband adoption that are being developed by Recovery Act projects.
Resources and tools on the site can be used to teach and help develop digital literacy skills including lesson plans, online training tools, and train-the-trainer materials. In addition, any user can go to the site’s workforce page to connect to a wide variety of career-building applications that teach a range of skills including word processing fundamentals, resume -building tips, and job search techniques.
The premise is simple: We live in an Internet economy where high-speed Internet access and online skills are necessary for seeking, applying for, and getting today’s jobs. DigitalLiteracy.gov will help Americans build the online skills needed to fully share in the benefits of broadband, including developing workforce skills, finding reliable healthcare information, or designing a website.
Earlier this month, I saw firsthand the benefits of our sustainable broadband adoption projects when I attended a graduation ceremony in D.C. Byte Back, a BTOP grantee partner, held a ceremony for adults who completed computer and jobs-skills training courses. At the graduation I met students who showed me how these courses are enabling them to cross the digital divide and open doors to new opportunities.
One of the graduating students was a mother who had to seek out her teenage daughter’s help in order to pass the course. Another graduate was a senior who came to the program when her computer broke. She enjoyed the courses so much that she is now a volunteer with the program, helping to teach other seniors valuable computer skills that can help them stay informed and connected. Several others were already finding ways to put their new skills to work and had lined up job opportunities.
We know that computer skills are increasingly important for success in today’s digital economy, and investments in training are addressing a very real need: nearly 80 percent of that graduating class were unemployed when they began training, and forty percent of that class were living in temporary or transitory housing situations. Many of the students, already in difficult situations, had to venture out of their comfort zone to tackle the challenging coursework. But now, armed with new skills, there is more hope for these graduates. If they follow the trend of classes from the year before – according to Byte Back -- every $100 invested in training unemployed students who are seeking work will result in a $1082 increase in student earnings. Byte Back says half of the program’s unemployed job training graduates found employment last year.
As part of BTOP’s comprehensive oversight of its grant recipients, I recently spent several days in North Carolina conducting an on-site review of two broadband infrastructure projects.
Local broadband provider MCNC received two BTOP grants that together will fund deployment of more than 2,000 miles of new fiber infrastructure. The new infrastructure will reach 69 counties and directly connect more than 500 community anchor institutions across the state, including universities, hospitals, and public safety facilities. To date, MCNC has deployed more than 140 miles of conduit, with plans to begin running fiber-optic cable through the conduit in the coming weeks.
During my visit, I examined MCNC’s project management approach, project status, grants management procedures, financial practices and controls, and compliance with BTOP and Recovery Act program requirements. My review included a productive series of meetings with MCNC that after two days of rolling up our sleeves yielded a better understanding of our shared objectives and the challenges associated with deploying and managing statewide projects.
At an event in Washington, D.C. yesterday, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Administrator Lawrence E. Strickling described the progress of broadband stimulus projects, noting that Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grantees have thus far installed more than 4,000 computers for public use and provided computer training to more than 65,000 people.
“These Recovery Act projects are already providing an essential link to economic and educational opportunities for thousands of Americans,” said Strickling.
Strickling said that BTOP grantees deploying infrastructure projects have already entered into approximately 90 interconnection agreements with other Internet service providers, which will enable these additional providers to connect to the new infrastructure in order to more affordably expand their own broadband service to local homes and small businesses.
“BTOP’s ‘open’ networks allow us to maximize the impact of Recovery Act dollars and spur additional private sector investment,” he said.
Speaking at an event hosted by the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition, Strickling cited data in NTIA’s recently launched National Broadband Map showing that most community anchor institutions, such as schools and libraries, do not have broadband service at fast enough speeds.
“These findings validate BTOP’s focus on addressing the broadband needs of community anchor institutions so that they can harness the power of broadband to improve education, health care, and public safety.”
Strickling also told the audience, comprised largely of BTOP grantees, of the agency’s vigorous oversight plans, including site visits, to ensure BTOP projects “are completed on time, within budget, and deliver the promised benefits to the communities they serve.”
Starting this week, federal program staff from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will begin post-award site visits to get a first-hand perspective on project progress and oversee grant recipients of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), a portfolio that approaches $4 billion in federal infrastructure investments. As a core component of the Program’s comprehensive monitoring strategy, these comprehensive visits will allow us to evaluate grant recipients' performance in meeting milestones and complying with grant terms and conditions.
NTIA uses a variety of tools to monitor grantee progress, including regular conference calls, detailed review of quarterly reports, and careful tracking of the expenditure of federal funds. Site visits are a critically important tool to corroborate information provided in written reports and to inspect equipment paid for by the federal government.
Our program staff will be digging deeper on the site visits and, like any good stewards of funds, will be focusing on the core areas of program performance:
(1) Project management - Is the project on time and meeting milestones?
(2) Financial management - Is the project on budget?
(3) Grants management - Are grant recipients and subrecipients meeting all relevant federal requirements?
At the conclusion of each site visit, NTIA will follow up with grantees to discuss any areas of concern and map out next steps including whatever customized technical assistance may be appropriate to keep projects on track. As necessary, we may also describe corrective actions to be taken by the recipient based on observations and conclusions drawn from the site visit.
NTIA takes its oversight responsibilities very seriously and will work closely with our grant recipients to ensure these critical investments bring benefits to the American people.