Experts, academics strategize on building the road to broadband

Since the dawning days of the horseless carriage, it's been conventional wisdom in state governments that road projects put people to work. That theme resonated in 21st Century fashion at Wednesday's Central Illinois Broadband Summit, held at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and hosted by Broadband Illinois.

But today, the crucial road construction involves an information superhighway via broadband. And speakers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications drove home, if you will, a key theme: Better broadband access means advantages in employment and education. To sell the investments in cable and infrastructure, all you need to do is demonstrate the economic and social benefits with irrefutable evidence.

Michael Curri, the founder and CEO of Strategic Networks Group, summed up that need in one succinct sentence that became a touchstone for the speakers that followed him: "You need to be able to say, 'Here's the number of jobs that happened because of broadband, here's the impact on GDP, here's the multiplier effect.'"

And so, a host of speakers and presenters—many of them with academic backgrounds in technology issues—put forth not just about the ways to make the case for broadband development, but the niches that could yield the most progress in terms of underserved age groups and locations.

In terms of the first issue, senior citizens rank high on the list of folks still staring down a digital divide. Statistics complied by Connected Living, a Boston-area group dedicated to web access for seniors, families and residential communities, show that 49 percent 65 and over don’t use broadband. With the elderly, the challenges of access and adoption come to the fore in especially high relief—though no one would concede that they’re insurmountable.

"Non-adopters are not a monolithic group," said Dr. John Gant, an associate professor at the U of I's Graduate School of Library and Information Science, who serves with The National Broadband Plan, a working group dedicated to developing a framework for digitally inclusive communities. "It takes different strategies to reach them, and one of the reasons is that there are a number of factors around user acceptance. How easy is it to use and learn?"

Another big factor: "Are the folks around you to help you use it? I'm reminded about this every time I go down south, and people in their 60s, 70s and 80s are coming over to my mom’s house to learn how to use the Internet. She's become an informal neighborhood hub, so much so that she just upgraded from dial-up to broadband."

Don Samuelson, a Chicago-based lawyer with a background in development and housing issues, referred to seniors as the "low-hanging fruit" in terms of training opportunities. He referenced a pilot project run by Connected Living, which is using $4.7 million in broadband funding (as a Round 2 BTOP SBA winner) to get low-income seniors and disabled people online.

That project involves 23 communities and 300 residents in buildings with baseline surveys; "We're trying to find out if they use Internet on a computer, have interest in using it or have no interest in using it." Samuelson said. "The goal is to make everyone as Internet-interested as possible, and make them users."

Whether that will happen remains to be seen, though Samuelson pointed out that Connected Living has just "dis-aggregated" the communities into 23 individual projects to benefit outside observers. "That way, people from all kinds of different situations in Illinois can check out the various building ands see which one most closely duplicated their situation," he said.

Karen Mossberger, a professor of public administration and associate dean at UIC's College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, shared an update on her ongoing research into how community-level training impacts bigger broadband questions. "We're looking at not just the individual level, how this might just change individuals who use the Internet, but in interpersonal outcomes--how people are sharing resources, information, and whether informal learning is going on in social networks."

Mossberger draws on her background as an expert and co-author of books such as "Digital Citizenship: The Internet, Society and Participation." She's seen enough to know that sets of data need close scrutiny to make sure unseen factors aren't influencing the outcome—a big deal when trying to make a case for broadband via statistics.

As she put it, "One of the challenges for doing community level measurement of change is whether you see an affect, is that just because of mobility? Has it become gentrified? If it's just because new people have moved in, that doesn't represent real change."

Still, others at the summit acknowledged the chicken-egg nature of the debate, in that broadband development is just as much about forging ahead, knowing that well-executed projects will bring positive results, even if they can’t be predicted with exactitude.

"What we're talking about is a gigantic national investment in infrastructure," said Dr. Christian Sandvig, an assistant professor of Speech Communication at the U of I. "How we place that bet is going to determine what the social benefits are."

To that end, Sandvig compared the development of broadband in the 21st Century to early telephone service in the early 20th Century, when the local drugstore served as a "hub" for people to place their first-ever phone calls. "The early drugstores were telephone exchanges, actually," Sandvig said. "So we have to ask what's the equivalent of the local drugstore, the hub where the Internet might expand into [remote] places?"

That analogy struck a chord with Drew Clark, executive director of Partnership for a Connected Illinois. “Not only is there an introduction challenge, but an adoption challenge. Once you introduced the telephone to farmers, you had to train them how to use it. When we're talking about 55-56 percent [broadband] adoption, we still have 1/3 of the country to go.”

That said, Clark stressed the beginning of the road—that is, the reason for making broadband a top priority—has everything to do with the final destination. As he put it, “We're not just talking investment in broadband for it own sake, " Clark said. "Better broadband leads to better lives."

Tags: Connected Living, Drew Clark, John Gant, National Broadband Plan, Partnership for a Connected Illinois, Strategic Networks Group, UIC, University of Illinois

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