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NTIA Administrator Strickling Delivers Remarks at the Brookings Institution on Broadband Technology Opportunities Program

January 16, 2013
News Media Contact
Heather Phillips

Washington, DC – National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Administrator Lawrence E. Strickling today delivered remarks at the Brookings Institution to underscore the importance of NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), which works to expand access to broadband services to communities across the United States. Administrator Strickling highlighted the program’s key achievements over the past three years, including having: deployed or upgraded 78,000 miles of broadband infrastructure; connected 11,200 community anchor institutions—such as schools, libraries and hospitals—to broadband networks; installed more than 38,600 computer workstations in 2,600 public computer centers in 1,500 communities; and generated more than 510,000 new broadband subscribers.

“Our promise to communities across the country that would benefit from BTOP funding – was this: The Obama Administration’s investment in broadband would create jobs, stimulate economic development, spur private-sector investment, and open up new opportunities in employment, entrepreneurship, education and healthcare. Most important, it would improve lives. Three years later, I can confidently say we are delivering on those pledges,” said Administrator Strickling.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 appropriated $4.7 billion for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to establish the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). As required by ARRA, NTIA designed this grant program to increase broadband access and adoption; provide broadband training and support to schools, libraries, healthcare providers, and other organizations; improve broadband access to public safety agencies; and stimulate demand for broadband. To learn more about the BTOP program, which benefits thousands of communities in all 56 states and territories, visit:

The full text of Administrator Strickling’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, below:

Three years ago, I was privileged to accompany Vice President Biden on a trip to north Georgia.  We visited a metal fabrication shop in Dawsonville, Georgia.  Dawsonville is a tiny rural town nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It is only 60 miles north of bustling Atlanta, but it is a world apart from Atlanta.  Dawsonville is the kind of place that could have been in danger of being left behind in today’s knowledge-based economy. Local jobs were disappearing as traditional industries such as textile mills, auto parts factories and construction trades contracted or disappeared, and civic leaders in the region were worried about what the future might bring, particularly in light of the economic crisis facing the country at the time.

What brought the Vice President to Dawsonville was the opportunity to offer new hope to the region in the form of the first broadband grant under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  Earlier in 2009, Congress had appropriated over $7 billion to expand broadband access and adoption in unserved and underserved areas of the country and to important community anchor institutions such as schools, libraries and hospitals.  The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, utilizing just under $4 billion of the dollars, created a new grant program in six months, and by September 2010, had awarded grants to around 230 projects from all over the country, ranging from $100 million projects to develop statewide education networks to much smaller projects of $1 or 2 million to provide public computer centers in remote towns in rural America.

Our promise to communities across the country that would benefit from this funding  was this: The Obama Administration’s investment in broadband would create jobs, stimulate economic development, spur private-sector investment, and open up new opportunities in employment, education and healthcare. Most important, it would improve lives. Three years later, I can confidently say we are delivering on those pledges. 

In Dawsonville, NTIA awarded a $33.5 million grant to the North Georgia Network – a coalition of county economic development authorities, a state university and two electric co-ops – to build a 1,100-mile fiber-optic network across twelve counties. The goal of local leaders was to construct the kind of advanced communications infrastructure needed to recruit information-age employers to the region.

Today, the North Georgia Network is complete and delivering high-speed Internet connections to more than 300 businesses, 42 schools, five college campuses, six libraries and dozens of other community anchor institutions. And it is driving economic growth and private-sector investment, as evidenced by Impulse Manufacturing, the metal fabrication company where the Vice President made that first announcement.  Impulse Manufacturing produces customized metal machine components for Fortune 500 companies and must be able to exchange massive data files with customers located across the globe. High-speed Internet access is essential for Impulse to be successful.

Before it got a fiber-optic connection from North Georgia Network, Impulse was forced to make do with slow, spotty DSL service that sometimes could not even hold a connection. Ron Baysden, Impulse’s President, told us that the lack of reliable high-speed Internet became an impediment to doing business. His employees were spending too much time just dealing with network problems. Customers even resorted to delivering data files on thumb drives. Today, Baysden says: “[We just] press a button and it’s here.”

Impulse Manufacturing recently landed a major contract to supply parts for 1.4-million-square-foot manufacturing facility that Caterpillar is building in Athens, Georgia. With this new business, Baysden expects Impulse to double its employee base of 200 over the next three to five years. And he says the new fiber-optic connection is one key reason Impulse will be able to handle the contract.

The benefits from the North Georgia Network extend beyond local businesses to anchor institutions. In White County, Internet speeds delivered to the school district have gone from 45 megabits per second shared across seven schools to a gigabit – allowing teachers to integrate online video and online testing into the curriculum. At the local middle school, every teacher now walks around class with a wireless iPad connected to a desktop computer and to a projector screen through an Apple TV box.

And at North Georgia College and State University, which was upgraded to 1.2 gigabits per second for 6,500 students over the summer, professors are streaming lectures over the Internet, students are accessing course materials online and administrators are offering more online-only classes.

North Georgia’s success story is not unique.  We are hearing from grantees across the country about how our broadband grant program is delivering on its promise to expand broadband access and adoption throughout the nation.  Today is a particularly significant time to share these successes with you as the first projects to be funded are now crossing the finish line.  

But first, some background.  Our investments fall into three categories:

•     First, infrastructure projects, like the one in North Georgia, which are building high-speed networks to connect rural communities and other places not adequately served by existing systems to the Internet backbone. The new networks are also supplying critical high-capacity connections to schools, libraries, hospitals and other vital anchor institutions that need more bandwidth to thrive.

•     Second, public computer centers, which are installing and upgrading computers in schools, libraries, rec centers, housing developments and other public buildings to provide the power of the Internet to those who do not have it at home.

•     Third, sustainable broadband adoption programs, which are teaching digital literacy skills to students and adults and providing online job assistance to low-income Americans and others stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide. These programs are also helping small businesses integrate technology and get online to expand their customer bases.

These investments have the potential to reshape our nation just as did the Rural Electrification Administration did nearly 80 years ago.   REA brought power to farms and rural homesteads that private electric utilities considered too isolated – and too expensive – to serve. And along with electricity came everything from refrigerators to running water to radio. Electricity helped usher rural America into the 20th Century and ensure that everyone – no matter where they lived –  had access to a basic necessity that we take for granted today.

While the electrification of rural America in the 1930s might feel like a world away from today’s efforts to expand high-speed Internet access, there are actually many similarities. Now, as back then, there is a group of Americans being left behind as technology advances without them. Now, as back then, this is happening in large part because many of these people either live in places lacking adequate private-sector investment or don’t have the resources to access what is available. And now, as back then, the government is stepping in to fill the gap because the new technology is no longer just a luxury or a benefit of urban/suburban living. Like electricity nearly a century ago, broadband today is a necessity of modern life.

Americans who don’t have access to the Internet are increasingly cut off from job opportunities, educational resources, healthcare information, social networks, even government services. And communities that don’t have a high-speed telecommunications infrastructure are increasingly at a disadvantage in attracting new businesses and new jobs, driving economic growth and competing in today’s knowledge-based economy.

With our infrastructure projects, we have focused on building middle-mile networks that would bring high-speed services into an entire community or county.  Our goal has been to spur private-sector investment by encouraging local Internet service providers to connect to these networks to deliver affordable service over the “last mile” to homes and businesses.  We have also encouraged our grantees to connect directly to the key anchor institutions in these communities since we found that the speed needs of schools, libraries and other institutions were substantially greater than for the community at large. 

One of these projects is SDN Communications, a partnership of 27 independent telecom carriers covering most of South Dakota. SDN used its $21 million grant to add 400 miles to its network along with an additional 100 gigabits of bandwidth along high-capacity routes. The project is connecting nearly 310 new anchor institutions as well as providing faster connections to more than 220 anchor institutions already on the system.

The Arlington School District, a K-12 school with 300 students that serves a farming community located more than an hour from Sioux Falls, is one of those anchors. The school was upgraded from a 3-megabit per second connection delivered over copper phone lines to a 10-megabit per second fiber link over a year ago. This has made it possible for every student in the school to have a laptop – and get online at the same time.

High school English teacher Lisa Parry says that broadband has transformed the way she teaches. Before, hiccups with the school’s Internet connection often led to frozen screens and painfully slow downloads and caused her students’ attention to wander as she tried to utilize online content in the classroom.

Today, Parry has her 24 students all logged in together. They watch online video – such as footage of last year’s Presidential debates to observe speaking techniques – and study online lessons called “WebQuests” to complement the material they are learning in class. Having their own computers, Parry says, allows her students to absorb material at their own pace and become much more immersed in the curriculum. Lisa told us that “[k]ids learn better when education is self-directed and self-paced. They are so much more engaged when they have their own screen.”

Altogether, more than 7,200 communities in all 56 states and territories will benefit from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. Here are some hard numbers:

  • Our grantees have already deployed 78,000 new or upgraded miles of broadband networks through the end of last September.  They are building more than 2,300 “points of presence” – or network nodes – in 1,400 communities. Over 80 percent of these communities will receive speeds greater than a gigabit per second.
  • Our grantees are in the process of connecting more than 20,000 community anchor institutions in 5,100 communities.  More than 20 percent of these institutions will receive bandwidth greater than a gigabit per second.

As I mentioned earlier, one of our major goals has been to prime the pump for private-sector investment by supplying critical middle-mile infrastructure that local carriers can use to deliver affordable broadband to more homes and businesses. That is why all networks built with Recovery Act dollars are subject to open-access rules that let all other carriers interconnect with these networks on fair and non-discriminatory terms.

The Three Ring Binder project in Maine – another one of the first BTOP awards announced in December of 2009 – is a good example of how this works. The project, which is supported by the Maine state government, the state university system and a group of small telecom carriers, has used $25.4 million in Recovery Act funds to build a 1,100-mile dark-fiber network across the state of Maine consisting of three interconnected fiber rings. Thirteen local carriers are now leasing that fiber to bring broadband to rural communities that in many cases previously had only dial-up service. Across the country, providers have signed over 500 agreements with our grantees to use BTOP-funded networks to better serve their customers.

One of those providers is Pioneer Broadband, which serves Aroostook County, a poor, rural county of potato fields and blueberry barrens where Interstate 95 literally comes to an end. Pioneer is leasing capacity on the Three Ring Binder to bring DSL and even fiber-to-the-home to a string of remote towns that had no broadband until now.

The Three Ring Binder is also connecting anchor institutions across Maine. The University of Maine system will now be able to bring 10-gigabit connections to all seven university campuses to support big data-driven research and collaboration with other major academic institutions around the nation. The Three Ring Binder is also turning on a 10-gigabit connection to the Jackson Lab, a genetics lab in Bar Harbor, Maine, so that it can exchange huge gene sequencing datasets with a new facility in Farmington, Connecticut.

Maine also provides an outstanding example of our program to increase broadband adoption across the country.  Improving adoption is key to bringing the benefits of broadband to our economy and is an area of great focus at NTIA. Census Bureau survey data reports that only 68 percent of households subscribe to broadband. So even though basic broadband is available to 90 – 95 percent of the population, nearly a third of households – more than 100 million Americans – do not have broadband at home. And approximately one in five households – 20 percent – does not use the Internet anywhere.

This is a troubling statistic in the 21st century economy, when broadband access and digital literacy skills are needed to compete in the workforce. And it is even more troubling when we hear what Americans tell us about why they don’t adopt broadband. Nearly half of non-adopting households cited a lack of interest or need as the primary reason.

We’ve been responding to this situation with the $250 million of sustainable broadband adoption projects and the $200 million of public computer center projects that I mentioned earlier. Our grantees are experimenting with all manner of creative and innovative programs to educate and train folks on how to use broadband and to equip them with low-cost devices and services to allow them to subscribe. We have been assembling the materials created in these programs on our digital literacy portal, which makes these tools available to anyone anywhere.

In Washington County, Maine, Axiom Technologies is using a $1.4 million broadband adoption grant in very creative ways.  Axiom is using part of the award to transform Down East Community Hospital – a 25-bed critical-care hospital in Machias, Maine connected by the Three Ring Binder – into a teaching facility for nursing students.   The grant has paid for video-conferencing equipment that allows nursing students to take necessary classes through a nursing college in Lewiston, Maine, nearly 200 miles away. The grant also paid for a state-of-the-art teaching mannequin used to train the nursing students in Machias that can be controlled by instructors in Lewiston.     

The first group of nurses will complete the program this May. Shelby Leighton, a 41-year-old mother of two who grew up in nearby Machiasport, will be in this first group of graduates. She is grateful for the program since it has allowed her to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse without uprooting her children and husband or moving away from her mother and aging grandmother. Leighton hopes to find a local job after she graduates so that she can – as she put it – care for the community that raised her.

Axiom is using another part of its award to equip 10 local lobstermen and 10 local blueberry farmers with rugged wireless devices, broadband connections and broadband training to help them manage extensive state data collection and reporting requirements. Axiom is developing software to move these tasks out of old-fashioned paper-and-pencil logbooks and into the electronic realm. It is also teaching the farmers and fishermen – some of whom have never turned on a computer before – how to design websites, develop spreadsheets and use programs like Photoshop.

Ellen Johnson, who owns an organic blueberry farm in Robbinston, Maine, took the training. She now has a brand new website to show off her blueberries, jams and pies, along with the website design and Photoshop skills to keep the site updated.

Axiom is offering its digital literacy training program in multiple locations around Washington County, including 18 public libraries. Many of those facilities have new computers thanks to a $1.4 million public computer center award to the Maine State Library to distribute more than 500 desktops and laptops across 107 public libraries statewide and equip 11 with videoconferencing equipment.

Several of these projects touch on two key areas where broadband can have a major impact on our quality of life—education and health care.  I would like to provide you a closer look at the type of benefits our projects are bringing to communities in these important areas. 

Broadband is critical to improving our educational system.  It expands access to teachers, classes and instructional resources, particularly for students at small rural schools that otherwise might not have the resources to offer Advanced Placement courses, foreign languages and other specialized subjects. It enables students to take online classes and access cutting-edge research at universities across the country. Plus, broadband makes it easier for students and parents to communicate with teachers and helps engage parents in their children’s schoolwork – sometimes providing the primary link between families and schools.

The State Educational Technology Directors Association projects that schools will need bandwidth of at least 100 megabits per second for every 1,000 students and staff by the 2014-2015 school year. The Association expects that requirement to increase to 1 gigabit per second by 2017-18.  Our program is helping schools make this happen. Our grantees are connecting more than 10,000 K-12 schools across the country to broadband and more than 7,200 will be getting speeds of 100 megabits per second or faster.

The Jordan Valley School, near Salt Lake City, teaches 150 kids with significant physical and cognitive disabilities, ranging from infants to young adults. Many are non-verbal. It is using technology to transform the educational experience for these children. The school has equipped all of its classrooms with iPads plus an Apple TV to connect the devices to a projector at the front of the classroom. On each iPad, the school has loaded software programs that allow students to communicate their thoughts, feelings and needs by navigating icons, screens and keyboards.  Thanks to broadband, Jordan Valley School is able to have as many as 50 iPads and 30 computers online at the same time. Mark Donnelly, the school’s principal, says technology has given his students a voice that they would otherwise not have.

Jordan Valley School is one of 140 schools, libraries, Head Start centers and other anchors across Utah being connected to broadband as a result of a $13.4 million Recovery Act grant to the Utah Education Network, a statewide research and education network managed by the University of Utah. Many of the participating schools, including Jordan Valley, now have up to a gigabit per second in bandwidth.

In inner-city neighborhoods, broadband is opening up new opportunities and broadening horizons. A non-profit called CFY (previously Computers for Youth) is using Recovery Act funding to provide digital literacy training and computers for low-income sixth graders and their families in New York City and Los Angeles. The CFY program focuses on high-poverty schools – offering Saturday workshops to teach students and parents how to use the Internet and find online educational resources that promote learning in subjects such as math and reading. CFY also trains families on its own platform, which provides free access to activities and games from across the Web that are designed to make learning fun.

Families who complete the training are given a refurbished computer loaded with educational software to take home, along with assistance to sign up for affordable broadband. That helps extend student learning beyond the school day and improves communication between parents and schools.

Maricar Catalan is a sixth grade math and science teacher at Dr. Julian Nava Academy of Arts and Culture, a school in South Central Los Angeles that is participating in the CFY program. Catalan teaches two groups of 32 students each – one group of kids on specialized learning plans and one group in a gifted and talented program.

Catalan uses the PowerMyLearning program to customize material for her students. The online content, she says, allows her to find challenging activities for the kids who are more advanced and provide extra support for those who need to catch up. She tells us, “It’s like having an extra person in the classroom.”

Zoila Perez, whose daughter attends Valor Academy in Arleta, California, is one parent who signed up for broadband after her family took part in the CFY program. Perez explains that she used to think the Internet was a dangerous place. But the CFY training helped her see the value of broadband, particularly for education. Now her daughter can go online at home to get the access she needs to research her homework and complete her school assignments. Perez, herself, has begun using the Internet to pay bills and look up healthcare information. Even her four-year-old son is using an online program to practice his ABCs.

Broadband also has the potential to transform healthcare.  Telemedicine expands access to healthcare services, particularly for people living in rural areas with few medical facilities and not enough local doctors. Patients can consult with medical specialists located many miles away using video conferencing technology, and doctors can monitor patients using remote diagnostic equipment. Telemedicine also permits physicians to transmit X-rays, CT scans, medical records and other big files to hospitals across the country with the simple click of a mouse.

Our grantees are using Recovery Act funding to connect more than 3,000 healthcare facilities across the country. Seventy-five percent of these facilities are getting at least 10 megabits per second of bandwidth, which enables high-definition video consultations and real-time image transfers, More than 1,300, over 40 percent, will be connected to more than 100 megabits per second of bandwidth, which can support continuous remote monitoring of patients.

Rhonda Smith, a 43-year-old mother of five in Arkansas, is living proof of the benefits of telemedicine. In December of 2011, Smith suffered a massive stroke while helping prepare for a Christmas party at the nursing home where she worked. She was rushed to Northwest Medical Center in Bentonville.  What happened next could be considered a miracle not only of modern medicine, but also of modern technology. The local hospital did not have the resources to adequately evaluate Smith’s stroke to determine whether it had been caused by a blot clot.  But Rhonda was more than three hours away from the major regional medical center in Little Rock and that was too long to wait.

So the doctors at the hospital in Bentonville consulted with an on-call neurologist affiliated with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) over broadband. That neurologist was able to talk to and examine Smith over an interactive videoconferencing system and quickly determined that she would benefit from a blood thinning drug. After the drug was administered, Smith was taken to the UAMS hospital in Little Rock by ambulance. By the time she got there, she was able to speak and today, she is just grateful to be alive.

UAMS is using a $102 million Recovery Act award to build a statewide fiber-optic network that is integrating, upgrading and extending two existing networks used for healthcare, education and research. The new network, which will reach all 75 counties in Arkansas, is introducing telemedicine to some of the most remote pockets of a heavily rural state. The system is connecting or upgrading 81 hospitals, 12 healthcare training centers and 113 local health facilities. Our grant is also paying for telemedicine equipment, including digital stethoscopes and ENT probes with “digicams” that allow doctors to examine patients remotely.

Another example is the ANGELS program, which gives women with high-risk pregnancies access to genetics counselors and maternal and fetal medicine specialists who can monitor them and conduct live fetal ultrasounds from hundreds of miles away. The program aims to lower the number of low-birth-rate babies born in Arkansas, which is above the national average. UAMS has used its grant to expand ANGELS to 36 sites around the state, up from 24.

One participating facility is the Mena Regional Health System in Mena, Arkansas, a town of 6,000 located 125 miles from Little Rock. Dr. John Mesko and the other obstetrician in town deliver roughly 450 babies a year and Mesko estimates that at least a quarter of those mothers have at least one telemedicine ultrasound. For these women, the ANGELS program means they don’t have to drive hours to get the care they need.

Lastly, I want to spend a few moments discussing the impact of our broadband program on workforce development and entrepreneurship. Our infrastructure grantees have directly created thousands of jobs in areas such as construction, fiber splicing and network engineering. But our broadband adoption projects and public computer centers are also driving employment in another way. They are reaching people who may never have even turned on a computer – a group that includes a disproportionate number of low-income Americans, senior citizens and members of minority groups – and teaching them how to use a mouse, navigate the Internet and set up an email account. These programs are also instructing people on how to write resumes, find Internet job postings and even apply for jobs over the Web.

These are skills that many of us take for granted. But for those stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide, not having this basic digital literacy can be a barrier to employment. Many job listings are only posted online these days and many employers only accept job applications online. What’s more, today’s job market demands a basic knowledge of computers, software and the Internet.

Sheryl Culbert, a 49-year-old mother of two in Los Angeles, knows this first hand. After being released from prison in 2010, Culbert was determined to turn her life around. That meant finding a job. So she made her way to Chrysalis, an Los Angeles non-profit that helps the city’s homeless and low-income residents find work and get on a path to self-sufficiency.

Chrysalis enrolled Culbert in a BTOP-funded digital literacy program that taught her how to go online and set her up with an email account. For Culbert, who had lacked the confidence to use a computer, it was a major step. Chrysalis also helped her land a job with the Skid Row Housing Trust, an organization that operates housing for the homeless in Los Angeles.

Today, Culbert manages her own building for the Skid Row Housing Trust. Her new job requires her to use a computer practically every day – to update rents in the system database, to email with Los Angeles County housing officials, to make flyers to be distributed to residents. She credits the digital literacy training she received at Chrysalis, for her success.

Chrysalis is one of 19 programs across California that has received a piece of a $14 million Recovery Act investment in the California Emerging Technology Fund, a non-profit organization seeking to close the state's digital divide.  Through all of its programs, CETF has helped over 2600 persons find jobs.

In conclusion, I would like to leave you with three thoughts.  First, that our program has been very successful, due in large part to the dedication and skill of the communities and companies and organizations that have been on the front lines of carrying out these projects.  Second, that while the statistics are impressive, it is just as important to appreciate the impact these projects have had on the lives of so many people.  I have shared only a few of our testimonials here today, but our grantees are delivering these sorts of benefits across the country to their citizens and customers and are transforming their lives.  And third, there is still work to do. 

We are working to determine how we can extend the lessons learned from our projects to other communities that did not receive Recovery Act grants.  For example, we will soon release a toolkit highlighting successful strategies to increase broadband adoption in inner city, rural or ethnic communities that can be used by communities anywhere to increase the level of digital literacy and broadband adoption in their areas.  For schools, our program will bring 100 megabits per second service to less than 10 percent of the nation’s K-12 schools.  Another 30 percent, it is estimated, already receive broadband service at the speeds recommended by the school technology directors association.  That leaves around 60 percent of our schools still needing upgrades in order to deliver the quality of education that our students need in the 21st century. 

At NTIA, we are committed to working to improve broadband service in all communities and to schools and other anchor institutions.  We look forward to working with all of you on this important challenge.  Thank you.