Broadband Abroad: A Firsthand Perspective

I’m actually in Europe these days – you may have noticed that I’ve been typing with an accent. I’m fortunate in that I have a job that I can do almost entirely online – and occasionally I like to test that theory. Unfortunately, getting online has not been as easy as I anticipated.

My unintended time off the grid started when the apartment we rented in Rome was not connected – despite having advertised broadband access. But once you’re there you’re kind of captive. But all was not lost I happened to notice free community wifi signs in the Piazza.

Well I’m not quite sure what happened there. I could see the network from my computer – but could not connect. Or rather I could connect but not get online. The day after we arrived, they actually took down the sign. But the funny thing was that those signs were all over town and I wasn’t successfully connected once – not from my phone, ipad or computer!

One note for anyone who has hotspots for tourists in their town – multilingual login pages would be helpful if you get/want International visitors. Also if you want o make sure tourists are informed and use web sites for more info – it makes sense to make sure they have some free, public access in central locations.

I did find that some restaurants had wifi – but few advertised it, all of the networks were password protested and not all networks were created equal. Eventually we found an Irish pub with a decent connection. But even travelling with in-laws from Dublin you only want to spend so much time in the Irish Pub in Rome.

Our next pitstop was France. We whisked through Paris pretty quickly. Issy-les-Moulineaux, France has made the Intelligent Community Forum Top Seven for several years – but the train doesn’t stop there. I tried periodically to find an open network in Paris – but no luck. (In fairness we were in Paris for about 5 hours so the problem may have been me.)

Next stop London – via chunnel. I was a little surprised that there was no wifi on the train – it’s very much a commuter option. But I was delighted to see that the station (St Pancras) where we landed had free wifi advertised and available. Also wifi available at our rental apartment, as advertised and free wifi signs in pubs across the city. I don’t know how much of the wifi availability was around a year ago and how much they are ramping up for the Olympics next year – but London is a good place to get online.

Final stop Dublin – again via train and boat. There was wifi available on the train for a modest fee; same with the boat. Part of the ease of connecting in Dublin is that it’s a home away from home so I know where to go – but there is connectivity in the libraries and in several of the pubs. It is cheaper here. We reinstated our 8 Mbps connection at the house here for €6 per month – that’s about $10.

One of the nice things about traveling is that you get to see what’s normal in other places. Broadband is normal – but community access is not created equal. The US appears to offer better options than Rome – but I wouldn’t say we’re ahead of Dublin or London. The other things here is the advanced use of cell phone (or mobile) but I thought I might write about that another time.

Todd County gets National Attention for Fiber Feasibility Plans

We wrote about Todd County’s plans for a feasility study last month. They are getting more attention via a post by Chris Mitchell in Muninetworks. Chris has a nice, concise recap of Todd County’s plans thus far. (His story was picked up on the Baller Herbst list.) It’s great to see Minnesota communities going for fiber and getting attnetion for it…

Mark Erickson of Fiber to the Farm in Sibley County (which we have written about previously) spoke about their motivations and lessons learned.

The meeting showed enough interest for the County to commit $20,000 to a feasibility study. Arvig, a potential private partner, has put up another $20,000 and the Blandin Foundation has put up a match of $40,000 to get the study rolling. Blandin’s match support in other communities has been very helpful to communities who are reluctant to put too much money into a study that may tell them the network is too difficult and expensive to build.

Foley residents get community web site

Here’s the latest from Foley, Minnesota; they are lcoated in Benton County, which is a MIRC community…

NEW FRONTIER SERVICES MAKES AN IMPACT FOLEY RESIDENTS WITH NEW AREA WEBSITE

Foley, MN, June 28, 2011: New Frontier Services, a website and website application provider, located in Foley, is bringing the Foley community together through the development of the What’s Up in Foley website www.whatsupinfoley.com

Last fall New Frontier Services www.newfrontierservices.com received $3,900 in funding from the Living Connected in Benton County Steering Committee http://www.bentoncountyconnected.org to help in the development of the What’s Up in Foley website.

The goal of the website is to increase exposure of the community’s events, information and opportunities. “We are working with nonprofit organizations to promote community involvement and create community awareness, said Brian Lorenz, owner of New Frontier Services. Lorenz goes on to say, “nonprofits are able to take advantage of the What’s Up in Foley website features at no charge. Those features include a directory listing, details page with specifics on the nonprofit organization, map to the organization’s address, event listings, ability to post information about volunteer opportunities and more.”

The website contains resources, services and opportunities for families, young people, elderly, businesses, nonprofit organizations, visitors to Foley and the agricultural community and job seekers. New Frontier Services is currently focusing on the following areas of the What’s Up in Foley website:

  • Youth – providing information about activities and school news as well as links to videos
  • Seniors
  • Agriculture – this area will not only provide common information but have tools available that will allow farmers to conduct business such as buying and selling of equipment. It will also provide information on training programs offered by the State of Minnesota and links to sign up for those trainings

For more information about New Frontier Services, Brian Lorenz or this website visit http://www.whatsupinfoley.com or call 320-968-7173.

Living Connected in Benton County http://www.bentoncountyconnected.org is a project partner in the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities Initiative (MIRC). MIRC is a coalition of 19 statewide partners and 11 demonstration communities funded in large part through an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant. The work of the coalition focuses on bringing the full promise of broadband technologies to rural Minnesota communities, businesses and people. Blandin Foundation serves as the project administrator. More about MIRC is available at www.blandinfoundation.org.

Creating Internet Literacy Programs for Homeless People

A couple of weeks ago, Open Access Connections held an event to address the broadband adoption needs of people who are homeless. I wasn’t able to attend but I hear it was well attended and well received. One of the cornerstones of the event was a report written by Rebecca Orrick on Envisioning an Internet Center for Homeless Individuals. The report really focuses on the needs of and solutions for the Twin Cities but much of the report can be just as useful for communities outside the Metro area.

The report itself is very interesting – but if you only had a couple of minutes and were thinking about this issue in your own community, I might cut straight to the Best Practices page, which I’ll abbreviate below:

  1. From the beginning, get the word out about the internet center, and spend a lot of time advertising.
  2. For funding purposes, many centers find that it is helpful (or required by funders!) to track the demographics of individuals who visit the center.
  3. It is important to decide conclusively whether or not the center will allow kids. If kids are allowed, they will have to be monitored more closely so that they do not damage the equipment.
  4. Many centers also find that it is helpful to post the rules of the center so that everyone who visits the center is clear on what is expected of them.
  5. If at all possible, the center should aim to have consistent hours.
  6. Do not underestimate the amount of planning it will take to start up a stand-alone computer center.
  7. Be leery of donated equipment- It is worth it to invest in new equipment if it means your internet center will offer individuals more reliable access, and be less prone to breaking down.
  8. Make sure to schedule regular maintenance, and have someone on staff who can inexpensively maintain and troubleshoot computer and printer problems.
  9. Develop a policy regarding whether or not people are allowed to save material on the computers.
  10. Also develop a policy on printing.

I’m going to add 11 – because while not mentioned above it’s such a good point from the report – get staffing from the community. In other words hiring homeless and low income individuals makes sense. It creates jobs but also staff close to the community will be able to relate to the community. They will also know how to provide outreach, which accroding to the report is a piece that is currently missing.

Rebecca surveyed the available reosurces and researched what was happening in other areas – but the heart of her material comes from interviews with homeless people about their needs and experiece with technology. I asked if there were any surpirses…

The biggest surprise I had during this research project was realizing how much information about existing internet centers is not widely known. Quite a few times, I’d be talking to homeless individuals at shelters or drop in centers, who didn’t even realize that within the building in which they stayed, there was a computer center that they could use. In addition, among the community in the Twin Cities advocating for digital literacy (individuals involved in the Technology Literacy Collaborative and others), many (myself included) were not aware that there were so many existing centers within transitional housing sites and shelters. I think the biggest thing that separates the vision that Open Access Connections has from most existing centers is the desire to have a place where people can learn to do whatever they want to do on the computers. At the presentation, we talked about how many of us learned how to use computers in informal ways, such as instant messaging or email writing, but in many computer centers, access is a lot more restricted to certain tasks, such as job searching. I believe that in order to become an empowered computer user, a person needs a lot of downtime becoming familiar with the computer and seeing it as a tool for fun and connection, not as a stressful thing that they need to learn last minute to accomplish an end goal, such as finding a job.

Monticello is still getting good marks

AllGov recently reports that municipal networks are the way to go for fast, cheap, reliable broadband. The use Minnesota’s own Monticello as an example of doing it right and urging better service from commercial providers…

The move of cities into the Internet business has prompted some telecom companies to adjust their business operations. One example is Monticello, Minnesota, where the city’s fiber network prompted private provider TDS to build its own system, after the company said for years residents didn’t need it.

I think any way you can get broadband to the smaller, rural communities is the right way – be it public or private provider. But given all of the hard work that went into Monticello’s network (in and out of the courtroom) it’s nice to see them continue to get kudos from their peers

MIRC program expands in Windom to offer computers, training, access

We’ve written about Windom’s MIRC project in the past. They are just one of the communities doing amazing things within the ARRA-funded, Blandin-led Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities project, but we wanted to share an opportunity that is allowing us to take MIRC a step further in Winona.

The City of Windom and Blandin Foundation are working with PCs for People, WindomNet and Atomic Training to provide computers, broadband access and training to eligible applicants.

It’s a project that gets at the specific circumstances that are consistently noted as barrier to broadband use: computer ownership and training. The hope is to help residents appreciate the benefits and make a difference in quality of life, economy and encourage greater continued use of broadband. (You can learn more from this flier.)

FCC report on Rural Broadband Strategy

The FCC recently released their update to their 2009 Rural Broadband Strategy – Bringing Broadband to Rural America: Update to Report on a Rural Broadband Strategy. There isn’t a lot of “new” information, but rather a concise state of the state of rural broadband. The focus remains on mapping and policy changes to USF, ICC, wireless deployment and removing barriers for potential broadband providers bolstering market driven solutions when possible…

Closing the broadband gap in rural areas and building a world-leading broadband infrastructure requires smart government policies that enable broadband providers to extend and expand broadband availability. These policies must ensure fiscal responsibility and accountability, and should utilize market-driven approaches wherever appropriate. The Commission, NTIA, and the states must further improve data collection and mapping so we know more precisely where resources should be targeted. The Commission must reform and modernize the Universal Service Fund (USF) programs and intercarrier compensation system to ensure that broadband providers have appropriate incentives to deploy and encourage adoption of broadband in rural areas. The Commission also must continue to remove barriers to rural broadband deployment to promote further private and public investment, innovation, and job creation. And the Commission must increase the deployment of wireless infrastructure in rural areas. These actions, many of which are underway, seek to increase the opportunities for rural residential and business consumers so that they can participate fully in today’s global economy.

There were a couple of good charts demonstrating the rural gap…

And a note that not rural areas are created equal…

Even within rural areas, areas that lack access to broadband tend to have a population with less education and lower income levels than rural areas with access to broadband.

The report outlines steps taken to assessment broadband deployment such as the National Broadband Map and the newer SamKnows effort to further map access and performance. It outlines government support such as the big ARRA BIP/BTOP awards, continuing RUS grants and loans. It also outlines efforts to increase deployment, giving a special nod to three larger providers and kind of an implicit nod to local and regional providers who have made an effort…

Broadband providers’ investment in rural areas has been substantial to date, and we note that three large providers of communications services, CenturyLink, Comcast, and Frontier, have committed to expanding their broadband footprints—at least in part to fulfill voluntary commitments to the Commission. Other smaller companies are rolling out state-of-the-art services in rural communities where broadband was previously unavailable.