Broadband infrastructure project will help drive economic development
Workshop attendees use automated-polling technology to register their preferences for broadband applications.

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2:57 p.m., April 1, 2010----The Institute for Public Administration (IPA) of the College of Education and Public Policy at the University of Delaware has received an initial award of $36,848 for work on the first of two main broadband project components over a five-year timeframe -- broadband mapping.

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An anticipated grant for the second component -- broadband planning -- could be in excess of $330,000 and is still in the process of being negotiated with the state.

Douglas Tuttle, IPA policy scientist, is the principal investigator and leads a project team of eight IPA staff and two doctoral students.

“This is an exciting project,” said Tuttle. “In terms of economic importance, the development of a national broadband-access system today has been likened to the creation of the interstate highway network during the mid-20th century. It is clearly evident how little of our state is directly served by the interstate highway system, and the same sort of regionalization of access need not exist with respect to broadband infrastructure.”

In a Feb. 18 article titled “Fix the Bridges But Don't Forget Broadband,” Wall Street Journal business writer Samuel Palmisano warned, “Without pervasive broadband, our country will not be prepared for a new world that is increasingly built on the fusion of the physical and the digital. Yet today the United States, the country that developed the Internet, ranks 12th in broadband penetration and 15th in average broadband speed.”

“We're at a point where high-speed access to the Internet is critical to the ability of people to be successful in today's economy and society at large,” said Larry Strickling, head of the National Telecommunications and Infrastructure Administration (NTIA), part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Regional economic prosperity depends in large part upon the provision of infrastructure. Roads, sewers, and drinking water systems have long been critical pieces in the economic-development puzzle. Broadband infrastructure is emerging as a necessity for regions seeking to compete in a knowledge-based economy. It affords high-speed connections to the Internet and provides businesses, governments, and households with access to a host of time-saving, educational, and commercially valuable applications made possible by the rapid transfer of data.

NTIA and the Rural Utilities Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are in the middle of putting $7.2 billion in stimulus funding to work building broadband networks in parts of the country that lack high-speed Internet access.

On Nov. 30, 2009, NTIA awarded the Delaware Department of Technology and Information (DTI) approximately $1.5 million for broadband data-collection, mapping, and planning activities, as part of a national broadband data initiative. DTI had requested that IPA submit a proposal for part of this work, based in large measure on what IPA had done in Sussex County and off of which this project will build.

Building on groundwork done in Sussex

On July 17, 2009, nearly 50 participants in the workshop “Broadband Opportunities for Sussex County” (http://www.ipa.udel.edu/ipa/news/sussexbdbandwkshp.html) identified potential opportunities for public-private partnerships and regional coordination to advance the expansion of broadband infrastructure and service offerings in Sussex County and Delaware. The workshop was held at the Elbert N. and Ann V. Carvel Research and Education Center on the University's Georgetown campus. Participants included business, government, and higher-education officials from Sussex County and the region.

Workshop organizer Troy Mix, former IPA assistant policy scientist who is now a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois, opened the workshop by saying, “Rural areas such as Sussex County face major impediments to broadband deployment, but there are significant opportunities for businesses, households, and governments to benefit from broadband applications.”

The workshop discussion identified major rural-broadband policy issues including supply, demand, and measurement. Broadband infrastructure has typically been deployed more slowly in rural areas than it has in suburban and urban regions. Figures from the 2009 Pew Internet and American Life Project report that 46 percent of rural households use a broadband Internet connection, compared to 67 percent of non-rural households, and no national broadband map yet exists to comprehensively assess the extent and location of gaps in coverage.

It was at this workshop that Bryant Baker, a DTI program manager, discussed broadband-funding programs authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and identified the development of a state broadband plan and map as a priority for Delaware.

The workshop was funded through the University's Coastal Community Enhancement Initiative -- a collaborative partnership among the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, and the College of Education and Public Policy that focuses on growth, land use, and environmental impacts in southern Delaware.

The project

This work comprises four specific sub-projects over a two-year period:

  • Collect and compile data;
  • Develop a broadband planning tool;
  • Convene technology planning teams; and
  • Develop stakeholder-engagement activities.

The initial sub-project, which is to be completed in the first year of funding, consists of collecting and compiling data from what are defined by the State Broadband Data and Development Grant Program as “Community Anchor Institutions” (CAI). These include schools, local governments, public safety organizations, higher-education institutions, and community-support organizations.

The task involves identifying Delaware's CAI, preparing the appropriate inventory instrument, conducting mailed inventories with follow-up as necessary to determine the state of broadband service and use at these facilities, and compiling the CAI data in the format required for submission to NTIA.

Beginning shortly after the data-collection sub-project has begun, the planning portion of the project starts with the second sub-project. IPA will develop a statewide, GIS-based broadband planning tool (making use of the data collected), which involves identifying barriers to the adoption of broadband services that would be used to produce a map, share information about broadband use and demand, and identify priority locations for investment, based on areas of low deployment, low use, and high need.

Broadband Data Improvement Act authorization is the impetus for the third sub-project -- “to create and facilitateÉlocal technology planning teams.” This task builds on the partnering strengths that IPA brings to the table statewide and will engage the local government, small business, and agricultural sectors to identify (1) issues affecting the deployment and full use of broadband, (2) sector-specific best practices, and (3) potential projects for expanding the use and deployment of broadband within these sectors.

These groups would include the Delaware League of Local Governments (local government); the Delaware Economic Development Office, Delaware Small Business Development Center, and Delaware Technical and Community College's entrepreneurship program (small business); and representatives from Delaware's agricultural community and the UD Cooperative Extension (agriculture).

The final sub-project, which involves the engagement of broadband stakeholders, will facilitate enhanced public and policymaker understanding of the current state of broadband in Delaware. This will include a policy report, brochure, and policy forum convened by IPA, followed by a forum summary report.

Providing a critical missing puzzle piece

“Businesses require the utmost connectivity. When it comes to attracting and retaining employers, regions offering widespread access to fast Internet connections have a competitive edge over those with lagging connection speeds and spotty broadband coverage,” said Julie Wheatley, director of Sussex County Economic Development, stressing the importance of broadband for economic prosperity.

However, the lack of broadband availability is only part of the challenge in Delaware, because even in places where broadband is available, not everyone subscribes. According to the Commerce Department's national figures, among households that do not have broadband, 38 percent said they don't need it or are not interested. Twenty-six percent said it is too expensive. Only 3.6 percent said they do not subscribe because it is not available where they live.

“Much like a high-speed roadway, access to broadband can be impeded by barriers that are income-based as well as geographic,” said Tuttle. “That's why our project starts with an inventory of the characteristics of broadband services currently available to key community-service institutions, and follows up with a variety of opportunities for public engagement in the discussion of broadband policy.”

“For policymakers,” Strickling said, “this means that helping people see 'what they are missing' is another important piece of the puzzle.”

“This is where IPA comes in,” said Tuttle.

Article by Mark Deshon
Photo by Nicole Minni

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