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Many back broadband plan

BY MARLEEN LINARES | APRIL 01, 2010 7:30 AM

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Local residents may soon have more access to the digital world.

A new federal plan aims to both expand broadband access across the nation and make it more affordable.

The National Broadband Plan, created by the Federal Communications Commission and presented to Congress in March, says there are roughly 36 million people in the nation without high-speed Internet service. To help change that, the FCC’s plan hopes to “foster competition and drive demand for increased network performance” while lowering the cost of broadband.

But some say other factors must be taken into account.

Sue Freeman, the program director of the Broadway Neighborhood Center, said the plan may help. But she’s worried it doesn’t consider people who not only don’t have Internet access, they have no Internet or computer experience whatsoever.

She said the center sees a lot of people — especially women between the ages of 40 and 50 — many of whom come in to fill out job applications.

When the Coralville Marriott Hotel opened, the application for housekeepers was only available online, and Broadway Center employees had to help many who had never used a computer through the process.

“There are two other components to solving this issue: providing computers and computer training,” Freeman said. “All three need to come together to make a difference.”

Paper applications to the University of Iowa are also dwindling.

Michael Barron, the director of Admissions, said the university received 6 percent of its applications — roughly 900 — on paper last fall. Though he said he doesn’t specifically know why those students chose to submit a paper version, he thinks the plan will decrease that number even more.

“We do prefer online applications, but we will continue to provide the opportunity to apply through paper application,” Barron said.

According to the plan’s website, the strategy will ensure the nation’s leading position in mobile innovation, with the fastest and most extensive wireless networks of any country.

But some are concerned the plan may be unnecessary.

According to a June 2009 report by the Census Bureau, 62 percent of households in 2007 had Internet access, three times as many as in 1997.

That means government interference may not be necessary, said Tim Hagle, a UI political-science associate professor.

“It sounds like [Internet access] is progressing very well,” he said. “It’s like the old adage says: If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.”

However, he said, the increase in availability would be beneficial, especially for schools and hospitals or rural areas without access.

The number of residents without Internet may also be skewed because the number doesn’t take into account access to a library or resource center with Internet, Hagle said.

In July 2009, the UI and University of Illinois-Chicago conducted a study that found a “digital divide” among varying communities in Chicago. The results showed 25 percent of residents did not have Internet access, and another 15 percent only had limited access to the web.

Since the study was released, Chicago city officials have been working toward conquering the divide and reaching out to its disconnected communities.

UI political-science Professor Caroline Tolbert, a study coauthor, said these disparities hold serious consequences for the larger society.

“Free high-speed [access] is essential for a 21st-century America, where everything’s online,” she told the DI that month. “The Internet is the mode of communication these days.”

David Redlawsk, a codirector of the Hawkeye Poll and a UI associate professor, also expressed the need for widespread access.

“Those folks who are offline will have a harder time competing,” he told the DI in July 2009. “They’ll have a harder time trying to operate — and even live — in the digital age.”


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