ARC’s understanding of technology literacy has led to ARC investment of time and resources to improve the digital literacy skills and broadband access of Appalachian residents and businesses. They are excellent at connecting organizations and individuals with complementary goals. ARC recognizes the benefit of utilizing existing infrastructures while also leveraging local funds with federal funds. All of which is accomplished in projects controlled locally, not by the ARC.
ARC also recognizes there is a continuing need to expand broadband access and digital literacy programs in Appalachia. The continually expanding resources online are profound, from medical information, to financial resources to homework assistance, those without broadband must wait for pages to download, taking hours to complete tasks that should only require minutes. ARC is a great supporter of Community Technology Centers. They have seen the connection users form to their Centers and the variety of tech skills they obtain from the CTCs.
I have been the Executive Director of the Ohio Community Computing Network (OCCN, www.ohioccn.org) for six years. I have served on the Community Technology Centers Network (CTCNet, www.ctcnet.org) Board of Directors for four years and as the Board President for one and a half years. I also serve as the Board Secretary for Grassroots.org (www.grassroots.org) and on the Board of Advisors of the Association of Community Networking (www.afcn.org). In addition, I blog about community technology issues at www.angelastuber.blogspot.com.
OCCN and CTCNet
The Ohio Community Computing Network (OCCN) is a member-driven organization supporting community technology to promote full participation in a digital world. OCCN is committed to ensuring that every Ohioan can make full use of modern computing and networking technology for personal and community empowerment and enrichment.
OCCN was originally established in 1995 as the oversight and evaluation organization for the 14 community computing centers created and funded by the Ameritech Advantage Ohio alternative regulation case settlement. This was the first time in this country that a settlement before a state public utility commission included the funding of community computing centers in low-income neighborhoods. It was an important breakthrough in the effort to make computers and telecommunications technology accessible to people of all incomes. Community technology centers provide basic computer training and support to people with limited opportunities to learn about or use computer technology. CTCs are not developed by any government agency or program. They are developed by communities who see a need for technology access and training, usually focused on low income, disabled or rural populations. OCCN has distributed over five million dollars to community technology programs through agreements between the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, regulated telecommunications companies and interested community organizations.
In June of 2005, the OCCN membership accepted the board and staff’s recommendation to expand OCCN’s mission beyond support to CTCs. OCCN now supports community technology efforts that include public access centers, mobile labs, computer refurbishing programs, online trainings and broadband access programs.
Our expanded mission led to OCCN helping form the Ohio Digital Divide Working Group (ODDWG). The Ohio Digital Divide Working Group is a unified effort to incorporate the goals of universal basic digital literacy & ubiquitous, affordable high-speed Internet access in regulatory, development and educational policies.
The Community Technology Centers' Network (CTCNet) was founded on the recognition that in an increasingly technologically dominated society, people who are economically disadvantaged will be left further behind if they are not provided access to and training on information tools. CTCNet envisions a society in which all people are equitably empowered with these tools. CTCNet is a national network of over 1000 Community Technology Centers.
ARC Support of Community Technology
Without ARC's support, the STEP UP program of Mission West Virginia's E-Impact initiative would not have been possible. STEP UP provides modern computer labs and high speed Internet access - for free - to some of the most rural areas of southern and central West Virginia. These labs utilize existing space in churches and community organizations while also leveraging the funds spent by Workforce Investment Board and state Department of Education officials, who use these labs to teach their curricula. The approach to partnering with community assets already in place also helps create a strong stakeholder relationship - again, improving sustainability and creating stronger communities through the use of ARC dollars.
ARC secured a million dollar Microsoft software donation, twice. Eligible applicants are nonprofits providing computer access or trainings. Microsoft limited distribution of the software from libraries and schools because they were already participating in Microsoft distribution programs, which leaves Community Technology Centers (CTCs) to receive the free software licenses. Partners in various states helped eligible organizations submit applications to ARC who would ensure the applications were complete and forward on to Microsoft. OCCN helped with the distribution in Ohio. To date, seven CTCs in the Appalachian region of Ohio have received free Microsoft software at a total retail value of over $90,000.
ARC, in working with Microsoft and CTCNet, would like to expand CTCs in more areas of Appalachian Ohio. Distributing the Microsoft software licenses resulted in ARC realizing many Appalachian communities do not have CTCs. The ARC staff is currently discussing the development of a new program with CTCNet to create CTCs where there are none. This is a very exciting program which could intensely impact the lives of Appalachian residents in the target states. In Ohio we have seen tremendous success among the youth served by the CTCs in the Appalachian region of Ohio. The CTCs in this region have been very innovative in using online learning tools (Muskingum County), multimedia technology such as video cameras (Perry County), and after school family focused programs (Coshocton County). The youth have become engaged in the CTCs to such an extent that they feel the centers are “theirs”. As they should.
ARC has supported OCCN’s attempts to find community technology programs we are not currently aware of in order to introduce them to existing resources and provide assistance to them. One exciting initiative found is the community technology efforts in Chesterhill, Ohio. Utilizing an OSU developed transportable satellite dish, Ohio State University installed a wifi network in Chesterhill. To maximize use of the new broadband and to ensure residents have the opportunity to learn digital skills, the community is also creating a CTC. OCCN will continue to work with the community members and project partners to point them to resources and provide advice for them to choose their own path. Chesterhill now has a wifi network. They will be deciding whether to sustain it as a community network, a municipal network or a pubic/private network. OCCN very much supports local control and the opportunity for communities to choose what is best for themselves.
The Digital Divide Has Not Been Closed
The attention of local leaders and the ARC to broadband access and digital literacy issues is commendable but this in no way should allow one to declare the digital divide now closed. Many residents of Appalachia still do not have access to broadband. When you are given statistics of how many do have access, I encourage you to ask how those numbers were derived. Most likely you will be told the data comes from Internet Service Providers (ISPs) reports to the FCC. ISPs may report they provide service to a zipcode if they provide service to at least one customer with a particular zipcode. In rural areas, zipcode regions can be quite large. This is not a method by which to determine actual broadband access in the rural United States. To determine where broadband access in rural America actually exists, a true research study would need to be conducted.
To expand broadband to all, we must not restrain broadband competition and expansion. There is much discussion currently about national franchising creating broadband competition. We need to keep in mind that allowing national franchising without equitable buildout will only provide competition in neighborhoods most likely to provide high profit margins to the providers. In addition, if we restrict the rights of municipalities to create their own broadband networks, we are reducing one more potential source of broadband access.
We must remember that access to broadband is only half of the problem. We must also ensure our citizens know how to use a computer and the Internet. There are no focused sources of financial support for technology training. For a digitally literate workforce and citizenry, we need a continued source of funding for community technology programs. And we need to help local organizations create community technology programs in regions where there are currently none available.