Two different approaches to bridging the digital divide

In the U.S. the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program is accused of waste while in the U.K. the grassroots B4RN community broadband network is a success. Is either approach the ultimate solution to bringing high-speed Internet access to rural areas?

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In Vermont, they're using horses to pull fiber optic cable through difficult terrain

Image credit: REUTERS/Brian Snyder

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the digital divide in the United States and how the lack of high speed Internet access was hurting, in particular, students in low income households and rural areas. I also wrote about a hypothetical (some say apocryphal) solution to the problem which would involve the FCC reclaiming some of the spectrum currently used by TV stations and repurposing it for powerful, free WiFi networks. In the last week there were a couple of news items about additional efforts to bridge the digital divide, both in the U.S. and abroad, with different degrees of success.

Stateside, the New York Times reported last week on the Obama administration’s $4 billion Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). This program, part of the administration’s 2009 stimulus package, is meant to get broadband access to rural communities and the 40 percent of rural households that currently can’t get it. The latest quarterly BTOP status report to Congress, submitted in December 2012, says that the 233 grants from the program have, so far, led to:

  • 78,000 new or upgraded broadband network miles

  • 38,600 new workstations in public computer centers

  • 510,000 households and 12,000 businesses signing up for broadband access

According to the Times, though, the program has been plagued with - are you sitting down for this? - inefficiencies, waste and, possibly, corruption. Fiber optic cables have reportedly been laid in communities that already have it, or to neighborhoods where the project engineers live, while many hard-to-access communities are still doing without broadband. To date $594 million of that $4 billion in grant money has been put on hold while investigations are underway by the Commerce Department and Congress is now planning to hold hearings about the whole program. 

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