By Laura Breedon, BTOP Program Director for Public Computing and Broadband Adoption
Last week, Dr. Jill Biden hosted the first ever White House Summit on Community Colleges, at which President Obama spoke.
The summit brought together community colleges, businesses, philanthropic organizations, federal and state policy leaders, and faculty and students to discuss how community colleges can help meet the job training and education needs of the American workforce.
Here at NTIA we are well aware of the critical role these anchor institutions play in their communities, and investing in broadband technologies for these institutions is a top priority. In fact, BTOP projects plan to directly connect approximately 600 community colleges across the country to broadband. These are among the 24,000 community anchor institutions that will be connected via BTOP projects.
The projects will provide high-speed connections that will enable students and faculty to use remote data sets, simulations, and other tools to learn and practice new skills as well as to collaborate with other classrooms in real-time. They will also improve education by bringing distance learning to schools in remote areas, enabling students to conduct online research, and helping teachers and parents to communicate with one another.
BTOP projects will also support public computer centers; jobs skills, computer, and workforce development training; and digital literacy initiatives on community college campuses throughout the United States. Some examples:
Earlier this year, at the start of Round Two, BTOP partnered with USDA’s Broadband Initiatives Program, to launch BroadbandMatch, an online tool that allowed potential broadband grant applicants to find partners for their projects, helping them to combine expertise and create stronger proposals. Conceived as part of the Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative, the tool enabled applicants and would-be partners to see not only which small and minority-owned companies might supply goods or services for their projects, but also which nonprofit organizations, educational institutions and state and municipal governments were taking the initiative to improve broadband access and digital literacy.
Now, In response to positive feedback, and to promote continued broadband deployment and adoption, BroadbandMatch is here to stay. NTIA is re-launching the tool as an ongoing resource for communities pursuing broadband projects and programs. This tool can help BTOP grantees identify prospective vendors as they implement their projects, and it can aid businesses, non-profits, and state and local governments find potential partners to collaborate on broadband initiatives.
Though the grant application window was only open a few short weeks, over 1400 organizations established profiles on the BroadbandMatch site. This included hundreds of community anchor institutions like libraries and community colleges, hundreds more Internet service providers, dozens of small and minority-owned for-profit businesses, over a hundred states or municipalities, as well as various technology vendors, public safety institutions, venture capital firms and tribal entities.
In proclaiming last week as National Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCU) Week, President Obama stated:
“[A]s we continue strengthening the capacity of HBCUs, let us also recommit to preserving and enriching their long tradition of hope and success, and to continue sustaining our collective effort to meet and exceed America’s goals of educational excellence.”
The recent announcement of a BTOP award to North Carolina Central University’s School of Law supports the President’s call to enhance the capacity of HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions of higher learning (MSIs). The $2 million investment will upgrade broadband service for videoconferencing that will increase low-income residents’ access to legal services and extend classes to HBCU partners: Elizabeth City State University, Winston-Salem State University, North Carolina A&T University, and Fayetteville State University, as well as to 22 legal assistance sites. Fayetteville State and Coppin State University, another HBCU, previously received BTOP grants to establish new public computer centers.
When I stepped into the Health and Human Services Building at Coppin State University yesterday to share in the celebration of the grand opening of the Coppin Heights-Rosemont Family Computer Center, I was greeted by University President Dr. Reginald S. Avery. He was beaming with pride at being one of the few universities in the country to receive a BTOP award. He could name the others that had won, including Michigan State and Minnesota. He knew he was in select company. The foyer was bustling with community members, including kids from the local elementary-middle school and the Coppin Academy, an innovative high school located smack in the middle of the university campus.
As the celebration began, what became clear was the close bonds that had been forged between Coppin State University and the surrounding West Baltimore community. As part of the celebration, Dajuan, a ninth-grade Coppin Academy student talked to the audience about how he loved coming to the computer center. He was setting his sights on college, and the center made him excited about learning. After his remarks, Dr. Avery looked him in the eyes, shook his hand and patted him on the back. He did this to all of the students that crossed his path. Patricia Smith also spoke. She is semi-retired but was looking to get back into the workforce. She gave rave reviews to the “Employment and the Internet” training program and the helpful staff that are helping her retool.
Monday was a great day. Under the presidential gaze of nearby Mount Rushmore, I had the honor of participating in the groundbreaking for Project Connect South Dakota – a $25.7 million infrastructure project that will bring fiber optic broadband service to more than 300 community anchor institutions across the state. Based on the enthusiasm of the crowd of state officials, representatives from the partner companies, and journalists, I couldn’t help but feel gratified about how our efforts are coming together and are making a real change in peoples’ lives.
The ceremony (called a celebration by its organizers) was held at the Rapid City Regional Hospital and was keynoted by Governor Rounds, who applauded the Recovery Act award as “deliver[ing] the world” to South Dakotans. As we posed for the requisite shovel-wielding photo op, I joked that the brand new directional boring machine that would soon begin laying fiber beneath the parking lot would be more fun to operate than the shovels in our hands. (Hey, I got a few courtesy laughs.)
The project will be implemented by SDN Communications – a consortium of 17 separate local and regional South Dakota phone companies that will contribute $5 million in matching funds. All of the local companies had representatives who couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about the opportunity to extend broadband services throughout their cities and towns. After the groundbreaking, I conducted a site visit to learn more about how the project is operating and to meet people who are charged with making it a success. As part of my visit, a couple of SDN’s network engineers gave me a tour of the Rapid City fiber route and showed me many of the anchor institutions that will get connected.
On Tuesday I had the pleasure of visiting the first public computer center opened as a result of a $1.9 million BTOP grant to the City of Boston. The opening, at the Mildred Avenue Community Center in Mattapan, was attended by Mayor Menino, other city officials, and project partners the Boston Public Library, Boston Housing Authority, and Boston Centers for Youth and Families. Dare I say that it was “wicked” exciting?
At Mildred Avenue, I got to meet the center’s managers, computer teacher, volunteers, and – best of all – kids who couldn’t wait to use the computers to play educational games. The City of Boston project focuses on the “reinvestment” aspect of the Recovery Act by replacing and bolstering equipment at about 50 locations, including community centers, Boston Housing Authority sites, and libraries in many of the city’s lowest-income and lowest-broadband-adoption areas. These centers were hard-hit by funding cuts due to the economic climate, but now they will all be updated by early 2011. The BTOP investment will also support a range of training targeted to the needs of the community, including computer skills, job readiness, and GED preparation.
The project is a great testament to the power of collaboration and the determination of the city’s CIO Bill Oates and his energized team to bridge Boston’s digital divide and bring residents all the educational and job benefits that broadband has to offer.
Angela Simpson is a senior policy advisor to the Assistant Secretary.
Chief information Officer for the City of Boston Bill Oates, District 4 City Councilor Charles C. Yancey, and NTIA’s Angela Simpson join students and Mayor Thomas M. Menino as he cuts the ribbon for the new computer center.
Yesterday was a great day to be a part of the Department of Commerce. In honor of the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Department teamed up with the Federal Communications Commission to host a technology fair showcasing technologies for persons with disabilities. There were more than 40 companies and organizations represented. Although a wide range of exhibitors attended, I was struck by how much of the technology had a tie-in to broadband and the Internet.
Unemployment and underemployment has been a longstanding issue for persons with disabilities. The latest Census figures tell us that approximately 1 out of 2 persons with a disability is unemployed or underemployed.
The advent of the modern computer age coupled with the expansion of high speed broadband services offers the promise of employment opportunities for all, but can be especially life-changing for a person with a disability. With access to high speed broadband and the right technology, a person who cannot see can edit a written proposal, a person who cannot hear can call a co-worker on the telephone, and a person who has difficulty moving can be a part of a team meeting even though they are at home.
To turn this opportunity into a reality, we were excited to announce a BTOP grant award yesterday for nearly $15 million to Communication Service for the Deaf, Inc. (CSD). The grant to CSD is designed to expand broadband adoption among people who are deaf and hard of hearing and provide them with tools to more fully participate in the digital economy. CSD plans to employ a mix of discounted broadband service and specialized computers, technology training from an online state-of-the-art support center customized to the community’s needs, public access to videophones at community anchor institutions across the country, and a nationwide outreach initiative.
Guest post by Joshua Broder, President, Maine Fiber Company, Inc.
Since the Three Ring Binder project received BTOP funding in December 2009, we have been hard at work moving forward to make this project a reality for Maine. One of the first steps we took was working with state legislators and telecom, business, and community stakeholders to pass a state law (as reported in the Bangor Daily News) establishing a new class of utility called a Dark Fiber Provider (DFP). This law will allow the Maine Fiber Company (MFC) to use utility poles to provide leased fiber on an open access, non-discriminatory basis to other telecom carriers and institutional users, thereby meeting BTOP’s open network requirements.
We’ve also recently submitted the Environmental Assessment required for the installation of fiber-optic cable along an estimated 36,000 telephone poles. The assessment included detailed consultations with the US Army Corps of Engineers, US Fish and Wildlife Administration, Maine State Historic Preservation Office, Maine State Planning Office, Native American Tribes, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. By completing this assessment, we’ve cleared the way to begin construction across 1,100 miles of rural Maine.
Meanwhile, community anchor institutions are signing up for service along the BTOP funded route. MFC is in talks with the University of Maine system to connect campuses all over the State with a dark fiber network capable of supporting an ultra-modern 10-gigabit research network that will eventually link University of Maine Campuses with the University of New Hampshire.
One of the key benefits of expanding broadband services in America is improved public safety communications. Fire, police, and other safety officials must be able to communicate seamlessly and reliably with one another to best prevent and respond to emergencies. New broadband applications can transform emergency response, too. For example, broadband can enable first responders to view the layout of a burning building before entering it or transmit critical video images from an accident scene.
As President Obama noted when the FCC released the National Broadband Plan in March, the Administration supports a nationwide, interoperable public safety wireless broadband network. And recognizing the need for improved public safety communications, Congress cited public safety broadband projects as a funding priority for BTOP in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. So when the FCC recently cleared the way for 21 state and local governments to deploy new public safety broadband systems, NTIA quickly responded to this significant development by providing these governments the opportunity to apply for stimulus funding to build the networks. Some of these governments may have been deterred from applying to BTOP prior to the FCC’s decision, and NTIA wanted them to have access to this extraordinary opportunity.
This week we received and posted valuable input from States, Territories and Tribal entities about our Round 2 applications. As a result, BTOP staff will have valuable, in-depth perspectives into the local impact of the proposals under consideration. As was the case in round one, we received thoughtful views from State CTOs, technology advisors and other key staff for governors and Tribal Leaders on which projects would best reach their most underserved and economically needy areas.
Many of the local “point people” responsible for this consultation went above and beyond to make sure their office created a robust rubric for analysis of the applications; in one case the comment document is a full-fledged report of the state’s broadband agenda, with sixty-plus pages of scoring charts, letters of intent and recommendation, and details about each recommended applicant.
For our Tribal outreach, NTIA made a true commitment to deliver on President Obama’s recent memorandum to federal agencies, calling for “engaging in regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration with tribal officials in the development of Federal policies that have tribal implications.” NTIA sought the views of Tribal Leaders of Native Nations and spent many hours preparing personalized packages to be delivered to every Tribe in the nation.
The bipartisan, nationwide cooperation shown by all players during this process proves that across the country, governors and Tribal Leaders are interested in getting the best possible results from Recovery Act investments. NTIA will be taking these comments into consideration as we move forward in the application review process, as governors and Tribal Leaders are uniquely qualified to provide on-the-ground insight that can make BTOP a success.
Ian Martinez is the Director of Outreach for BTOP