Last week I was in Omaha, Nebraska to engage in several discussions about the importance of ubiquitous and affordable, high-speed Internet. As you know, we are spending a lot of time at the Commission considering how to reform and modernize the federal Universal Service Fund (USF) and intercarrier compensation regime (ICC) to ensure that broadband is available throughout the nation. And we continued a discussion with consumers, industry, and our colleagues at various state commissions about our pending proposals last Wednesday at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
For broadband to be truly available to consumers, we have to consider more than their physical access to it. We also must take into account their ability to adopt it. We know that of the 1/3 of Americans who haven’t adopted broadband, most haven’t done so because of the costs involved. For these consumers, they must rely on Internet access at their jobs, local libraries, schools, and family and friends’ homes. On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of visiting the Charles B. Washington Branch of the Omaha Public Library to see how this neighborhood anchor is meeting the high-speed Internet needs of the local community. There are terminals all throughout the library. The children’s section has computers. There are two computer areas for adults and another area just for teens. A recipient of BTOP funds, the library will be expanding its access to more computers for citizens, as the demand is very high. This isn’t surprising, of course, because we know that high-speed Internet is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Without it, citizens are disadvantaged in finding a job and communicating. I saw first-hand the benefits of Internet access—the Internet research, commerce, and communicating that the citizens of North Omaha engage in at their local library.
In addition to providing access to computers and high-speed Internet, the library also offers computer classes to help teach citizens the basics of computer use. This is important because many who have not adopted broadband say they haven’t done so because they don’t know how to use computers. Librarians have responded to the need for education, and they have become the digital literacy navigators in our local communities. The librarians I visited with described the citizens who are thrilled to learn the skills they need to send an e-mail, research a health issue, and use Facebook to keep up with their grandchildren.
After touring the library, I had the pleasure of joining Congressman Terry and Commissioner Copps to talk with the local citizens and other Nebraskans about the barriers to adoption and the various efforts underway to address the ability of citizens to purchase and use broadband. We heard a lot about the need for broadband for distance learning in Nebraska and the benefit experienced by one student who was able to keep up with his schoolwork and participate in his class remotely, while undergoing chemotherapy. For this child, who is now in remission and back at school, there was not one significant missed day of school during the year of his treatment. We also heard from industry and their various efforts, such as CenturyLink’s broadband adoption program it committed to implement in its recent merger with Qwest and it was made even clearer, that addressing the barriers to broadband adoption will take both private and public sector efforts.
The other top reason consumers cite for not adopting broadband is that the Internet isn’t relevant to them, but I believe that we will witness fewer people concluding that as we see more and richer content made available on-line. For example, while in Omaha, I had the opportunity to see new content just for Omahans. Omaha now has its own virtual town hall at www.engageomaha.com. Launched about a month ago, this website is a public-private partnership between the City and MindMixer, a local technology firm. I saw first-hand at MindMixer, how EngageOmaha.com allows local citizens to participate in policymaking issues 24/7. Recognizing that people lead busy lives and that conflicts are common during the time when town hall meetings are scheduled, Mayor Jim Suttle and his staff spearheaded the creation of this website to permit citizens—at times convenient to them—the ability to engage with their municipal leaders. Omahans can now vote on their favorite ideas or submit their own, and what is just as significant, is that citizens will be able to track the progress of those issues. They will know when they have been heard, as the site will provide updates on the implementation of their or others’ ideas. This is yet another application that is making the Internet relevant to every citizen of Omaha. But they are not just stopping there. MindMixer and the city are taking the website on the road, and through the use of IPads, will be boarding buses to help and encourage citizens who want to weigh in but don’t have access to the site at home or on their mobile phone, get engaged.
Hats off to the City of Omaha, the Suttle administration, and MindMixer on the launch of this incredible website, and for providing a user friendly platform for innovative, civic engagement.