My father was a broadcast/film professor at SMU. Radio was his first love, but he relished any and all forms of media—TV news, old movies, theater. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Living Theater, the New Deal-era program that paid starving actors, playwrights and directors to stage live drama about current events.
I know that if he were alive today, he would have loved digital media and the almost infinite potential of broadband Internet. I also know he would have been a big fan of BTOP (Broadband Technology Opportunities Program), which is part of the federal economic stimulus package adopted in 2009.
In Southern California, the Tribal Digital Village is working with ZeroDivide, the San Francisco-based technology foundation, and using BTOP funding to promote awareness and adoption of broadband in the tribal areas of San Diego County. Baseline broadband adoption on these reservations is only 17 percent, as compared to about 66 percent of communities nationwide. In most cases this is due to a simple lack of availability.
Matthew Rantanen is director of technology for TDV, a nonprofit founded by the Southern California Tribal Chairman’s Association. He says that for many who live in the tribal areas past experience with the Internet, if any, was an AOL dial-up account. “We are out there telling people what broadband actually is, and ways you can make changes in their lives,” says Rantanen. “Many people don’t even understand the opportunities.”
TDV, which is both a provider and an evangelist for broadband, is taking a “slow rollout” approach, moving from reservation to reservation in an effort to sign up more residents for its wireless broadband service, which consists of a solar power microwave tower that sits atop a hill. The group can offer “line of sight” service to homes on and near the reservation. In other words, if you can see the home from the hill, TDV can provide the service.
Currently, TDV is providing broadband service to about 270 homes. Eventually they hope to hit about 2,000 homes, but before they can do that, they need more funding to upgrade the system and partially subsidize the cost of installation and equipment.
So what are the people learning? “We give them give an overview of the Internet, something on online banking, applying for college or jobs, job training, how to use maps, find directions and how to buy airplane tickets,” says Rantanen. “Then we go through the whole social aspect, the My Space, Twitter all that. We jump into personal website building and promoting business, promoting a craft and online sales of the craft. We show how its can be a resource for medical care and e-health for things like DMV, managing your personal assets, investing, email, Apple’s iChat and Skype.”
“Half the people that show up are parents or grandparents of children who have Internet at school, but when they come home, they have nothing,” says Rantanen. So they’re telling their parents or grandparents, `Look, we’ve got to have Internet, because I need it for my school work.’”
BTOP strikes me as having echoes of the New Deal rural electrification program, an effort that transformed the lives and economic fortunes of millions of American in rural areas of the country.
Rantanen for one is a firm believer in the transformational power of broadband, especially when it comes to education and jobs. “The unemployment rate on tribes is typically hovering around 50 percent,” he says. “With broadband they can look on craigslist and find jobs in their area. They can go online for training, build resumes and apply online.”
“Even if you walk into Home Depot to apply in person,” he adds, “they put you at a computer and you fill out the application on a terminal. There’s a huge shift in the way things are working and being out in a rural community and not having access to broadband really restricts your ability to move in today’s market.”
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.