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.
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.
This week marked the announcement of the final BTOP Round 1 grants. "Last, but not least" certainly describes these awards. Among them are some very meritorious last mile infrastructure projects in Idaho, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Washington. In Puerto Rico, we are funding a project that will enable broadband providers, anchor institutions, and government entities to band together to deploy a wireless middle mile network across the island, enhancing access and reduce costs. In addition, the final Sustainable Broadband Adoption grant of Round 1 is a strong, comprehensive 31-state project to educate, connect, and help close the digital divide in low-income communities across the nation.
Overall, BTOP Round 1 involved 82 grants for $1.2 billion in federal funding. Almost every state in the nation will be impacted by these awards – either in terms of improved broadband capabilities, access to broadband at new or improved public computer centers, or by way of broadband education and training. Beneficiaries include rural areas, urban areas, tribal areas, low-income areas, the public safety community, the educational community, small businesses, minority businesses, and those with disabilities. We look forward to building on this strong foundation in the coming months.
Work is already well underway in processing Round 2 applications – input is coming in from states and tribes, and existing service providers are letting us know about the areas they serve. There won’t be any down time here at NTIA this summer, but we’re energized by the unique opportunity the Recovery Act provides to make significant near-term improvements in the country’s broadband landscape.
Angela Simpson is an adviser to the Assistant Secretary on broadband
The BTOP Compliance/Environmental Team marked Earth Day yesterday by accepting the 2010 Department of Commerce Environmental Stewardship Award from the Commerce Department’s Director for Administrative Services Mary Pleffner and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Administration John Charles. This annual award recognizes outstanding achievements of Department employees for efforts that significantly contribute to, or will promote, environmental stewardship.
BTOP was selected to win this award for its development of a model program to meet National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements under severe time and logistical restraints. Though the Recovery Act required NTIA to get BTOP up and running under a compressed timeline, from day one we’ve been dedicated to ensuring that our grants meet all federal compliance standards.
Congratulations to the Compliance team for their commitment to environmental stewardship and earning this award!