August 24, 2010 By Matt Williams
Photo: Bryan Sivak, chief technology officer, Washington, D.C./Photo courtesy of Washington, D.C.
Broadband adoption in Washington, D.C., toes the line -- not party lines, but rather the lines of the district's eight wards. In well-to-do neighborhoods located in the northwest, more than 90 percent of residents are connected to high-speed Internet access, according to a 2009 study by the district's technology office. But to the southeast, in poorer communities, only 36 to 40 percent of people can access broadband.
There's literally a digital divide that splits Washington, D.C.'s geography.
Bryan Sivak, who has been Washington, D.C.'s chief technology officer since last October, leads a coordinated effort to close that disparity -- an effort that will be one of his office's main missions, he said. "Some might say I'm evangelical about addressing the digital divide," he added.
In a program Sivak believes is unique in scope, the district has assembled a three-pronged strategy that addresses the major challenges of providing and sustaining universal broadband to citizens: cost, public education and access to technology. All three obstacles are being addressed with separate stimulus grants awarded by the federal government.
"I think we may be the only institution [in the U.S.] to get three grants from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration," Sivak said. In fact, he said, the city couldn't undertake such a holistic approach without stimulus money.
Last week, Sivak and Mayor Adrian Fenty announced the newest award. A $4.2 million grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, coupled with $1.5 million in matching funds, will be put toward an Internet and computer skills education program offered at Washington, D.C.'s public libraries and community college campuses. The program will target underserved individuals, including low-income residents, seniors and residents who speak English as a second language. The six-month classes, called DC Broadband Education, Training and Adoption (DC-BETA), may start as soon as October, and will continue for two years. Washington, D.C., hopes to train a total of 3,400 residents, Sivak said. After graduating, participants will receive a free computer, tech support and six months of free Internet access.
The district will then measure the number of residents who continue to subscribe to and use broadband beyond the six-month free-access period. Sivak believes this survey will provide an accurate tally of the project's true effectiveness in boosting broadband adoption. The hope is the class-goers will learn that using broadband is essential to their economic future.
Beyond this education component, two other grants awarded earlier by the NTIA address the cost and public availability of broadband. A $17.4 million grant will extend the district's high-speed fiber-optic network, called DC-Net, which is currently available to schools, libraries, public housing and other institutions. The money will grow the 330-mile fiber-optic network by 50 percent, Sivak said, connecting the network to 220 additional anchor institutions. Officials hope that Internet service providers will connect to Washington, D.C.'s lower-cost backhaul and in turn offer consumers lower-cost broadband than what's currently available.
With the availability of new money, Sivak said he's had friendlier discussions with carriers during the past six weeks about building out the necessary last-mile infrastructure.
The other $1.5 million grant to Washington D.C.'s public libraries will fund expanded computer learning centers and training. One-gigabit connections will be installed in all library branches, Sivak said, including 10-gigabit bandwidth at the main library.
Washington, D.C.'s digital divide strategy will be fleshed out in more detail in a three-year planning document that's due to be released in September, Sivak said. There are still decisions to be made: Some issues are small, like deciding what brand or brands of computer the class participants will be given. Others are bigger, such as how the augmented city-owned fiber-optic network will be sustained in the future -- possibilities include government financing, a public-private partner or a carrier-owned option.
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