by gavin dahl
One Idaho broadband visionary says big internet providers are playing Jedi mind tricks on us (from the Dark Side), trying to convince us we’re on a superhighway in the big leagues while keeping us bumping along happily on our donkey carts.
In tomorrow’s BW, we’ll talk about some of the small, nimble rural broadband projects that are hoping for a piece of the billions of dollars of stimulus funding coming out of Washington, D.C. in the very near future. These are people who are taking the initiative to tailoring their local information superhighway, rather than just putting up with whatever the big guys give them.
For Couer d'Alene Tribe IT director Valerie Fast-Horse, broadband means participation in information, rather than being a passive recipient of it.
The Couer d'Alene Tribe has plans to deploy high-speed Internet to over 3,700 unserved and underserved households in Plummer, Worley and the reservation itself. Her project is one of twelve by Idaho-based groups seeking broadband stimulus funds from the Recovery Act created by Congress last year.
To prove the need for high-speed, Fast-Horse provided the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service with data on 800 local census blocks. She collected detailed data on who had Internet—some don't even have phones—using a GIS device and by driving up and down county streets, tribal roads and state highways.
"I like that the administration allowed us to do census blocks, even though it was tedious to do it," she said. "Because we're rural (the maps of) our households aren't tidy and neat. We have farms that are way out in the boondocks."
"Tribal lands have as low as five percent broadband adoption," said Hannah Miller, national field director of the Media and Democracy Coalition. Made up of two dozen organizations who amplify the public's voice in shaping telecommunications policy, their work is necessary to protect the public interest, she says, because crucial policies are often determined by politicians who hear only from lobbyists.
"Our role is to try to encourage as many community partners to get involved as possible. Community involvement is what makes or breaks this thing. You're asking folks to participate in something a great deal of people are intimidated by."
Soon the public will be better informed about broadband availability than ever before, says Idaho Regional Optical Network general manager Victor Braud, thanks to the mapping contract Idaho signed last year with LinkAmerica Alliance. While other states signed contracts with Connected Nation, widely criticized for acting in the interest of large incumbent Internet providers, LinkAmerica vice president Mike Wilson insists their effort is not funded by any carriers.
"Carriers want to make sure there's at least some return on investment for build-out," he commented. "Without data showing what is truly underserved and what is unserved it is hard. We do some pretty granular mapping, but we won't just send data to D.C., we are also developing an interactive Web mapping tool. What will be available to consumers will depict covered roads and communities by speed and by technology."
State of Idaho Deptartment of Administration Chief Technology Officer Greg Zickau is "very pleased" with LinkAmerica, though he pointed out the state will be careful with mapping data, which is considered proprietary. "We absolutely don't want to put any provider's proprietary information in danger," he said.
Gem State Community Development consultant Sharon Fisher has covered broadband for NewWest.net since 2007. She looks forward to the completion of the mapping project, pointing out 768 kilobits per second, the official definition of broadband speed, is not fast enough for most web functions.
"At that speed you're certainly not going to be able to watch video in real time," she said. "It's probably enough for basic surfing. In 1936 only 11 percent of rural areas nationwide had electricity so they created the Rural Electrification Act. Broadband Internet is the electricity of this century. You can't run a business without it anymore."
Ernie Bray, project manager for Panhandle Area Council's proposed fiber optic network, agrees. "Unfortunately, people drink a lot of the incumbent carrier Kool-aid," Bray told BW. "I call it the Jedi Mind Trick, they say 'if we don't offer it, you don't need it. If you needed it, we would provide it.' Well, they don't."
Christine Frei, executive director for Clearwater Economic Development Association agrees there's not enough return on investment for big companies to bridge the remaining digital divide, and that is why she supports applications by the Nez Perce Tribe and First Step Internet in Moscow.
"It's one thing to put equipment into buildings and another thing to put money into infrastructure to connect them. Currently there is no connectivity that runs north to south in the state of Idaho. Everything goes out to Washington and Oregon."
"Rural areas should have something that allows them equal opportunities," said the mapper, Wilson. "In rural areas of Idaho, how are dairy farmers monitoring their output? Are they doing it manually or are they using wireless delivery of output? There are all kinds of practical uses of broadband."
Miller, the activist, hopes the stimulus delivers funds to projects that improve rural access to affordable high-speed Internet. "There's a different moral weight to these phone and cable companies than if they had, say, a peanut brittle monopoly. This is about access to information."