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Geoff Daily

App-Rising.com covers the development and adoption of broadband applications, the deployment of and need for broadband networks, and the demands placed on policy to adapt to the revolutionary opportunities made possible by the Internet.

App-Rising.com is written by Geoff Daily, a DC-based technology journalist, broadband activist, marketing consultant, and Internet entrepreneur.

App-Rising.com is supported in part by AT&T;, however all views and opinions expressed herein are solely my own.

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September 19, 2008 9:19 AM

Why Broadband Matters: The Excitement/Disappointment of My First Senate Hearing

On Tuesday I had the opportunity to attend my first Senate hearing in person. The subject: "Why Broadband Matters." Needless to say with a topic like that I couldn't have been more excited to go.

Unfortunately when I first arrived that enthusiasm quickly waned. Out of the 23 Senators on the Commerce committee holding this hearing there were only three in attendance: committee chairman Sen. Inouye, Sen. McCaskill, and the infamous Sen. Stevens (aka Mr. Tubes). Over the course of the hearing three other Senators showed up but by the end we were left with only Sen. Inouye.

He even lamented that fact in his closing remarks saying, "This is an important issue, yet we have only two Senators here." (That second Senator left shortly thereafter.)

Now I know this is the way hearings often go, and of course we're in election season, which further distracts the already overloaded agendas of Senators. But I couldn't help but get the feeling that the lack of participation reflected a certain level of disinterest among the no-shows on this issue.

Though to be frank, I don't totally blame them for not showing up as there wasn't much said that anyone who's an advocate for broadband doesn't already know, ie broadband improves healthcare, education, etc.

Luckily the time was more than well spent by Sen. Inouye's comments alone.

Continuing on in his closing remarks he shared his belief that broadband is just as important an innovation as the printing press, that it's a shame we don't have this universally available and utilized, and that something must be wrong if we who were the pioneers of the Internet are now not much better off than a third-world country.

Two are important points he made are: one, if we have no broadband policy, than this becomes a political issue, which it has, pitting left vs. right at a time when we need to all be working together and when we're all in general agreement that broadband's important and we need to be doing more to spur deployment and adoption; and two, he expressed his frustration over the fact no one can tell him how much it'll cost to get these networks built and fully utilized.

He implored the presenters to send him and his colleagues more hard data about costs, efficacy, and the like, that they're starving for information to help guide their decision-making. He even went so far as to say that he's got no problem putting in an earmark, he just needs to know for what, how it will help, and what it will cost.

Here's a Senator who really gets the significance of the broadband issue. I found myself leaning forward in my chair getting more excited with every word. I now know I need to follow up with and meet Sen. Inouye's staff as I'm guessing when I do I'm going to find kindred spirits.

I have observations to share on two of the other Senators in attendance: Senator Thune and Senator Stevens.

Senator Thune, who I learned has been a long-time advocate for telemedicine, expressed his frustration during his questioning of the panel that each year he's having to fight just to appropriate a few million dollars to put towards the Office for the Advancement of Telehealth. On the one hand I was excited to learn there was a champion on these issues in the Senate, on the other it's frustrating to hear that in an area where the use of broadband can have such a clearly profound impact on the quality of people's lives we're still not able to cut through the bureaucracy and old-fashioned mindset to push forward aggressively with policies that advance the state of our healthcare system.

Seeing and hearing Senator Stevens at this hearing was an interesting revelation for me. He's been widely mocked for his describing the Internet as a series of tubes, being branded as out of touch and unfamiliar with what the Internet is and can do, yet from my observations not only was he there longer than anyone but Sen. Inouye, he was highly engaged the entire time. While some Senators spent most of the time reclining or texting on their Blackberries, Sen. Stevens' attention was rapt throughout. And when he had a chance to speak briefly, he expressed his clear understanding that in a state like Alaska without roads and mass transportation having a robust broadband infrastructure is vital to preserving the health of his constituents. He even cited a specific in that there are many veterans a thousand miles from the nearest VA hospital, yet with requirements that they be tracked for 5 years after serving he sees that the only this is possible is through the use of telecommunications.

So while he's taken a lot of flack for not getting it, from my observations he has a personal understanding about the value of broadband that surpasses many of his colleagues, and I can't help but applaud his commitment to these issues.

One final overall thought on the Senators collective questioning and lines of thought, it seemed like this hearing was less about why broadband matters, since all in attendance seemed to understand that, and ended up being more about deployment, in particular to rural areas. Just about every Senator made mention of that in their questioning and/or remarks.

It's fantastic that strong attention is being put on the rural problem as it's one of the more daunting ones we face, yet I have to admit some level of disappointment that they didn't express more interest in asking about what the federal government can be doing to spur adoption and use of broadband, despite that being a common theme of the remarks of the panelists.

Touching on those remarks, here's a brief overview of who spoke and the main point(s) they made:

Rey Ramsey, chairman and CEO of One Economy - We need to not focus solely on deployment but more heavily on generating demand and spurring the creation of applications. We also should prioritize networking low-income housing, whose connectivity needs too often get left behind as an afterthought.

Larry Cohen, president of Communications Workers of America - The US is lagging behind its global competitors when it comes to connectivity and price, and a primary reason we've fallen back is our lack of a national broadband policy. In fact, we're the only modernized country without a clear national broadband policy, which is what's preventing us from moving forward.

Jonathan Linkous, executive director of American Telemedicine Association - There are many examples of cool new telemedicine apps, like support groups in the virtual world Second Life, but on too many fronts the US has lagged behind in adopting these apps. Places like Africa have leapt ahead of us in the use of things like health applications on their cellphones.

Dr. Mara Mayor, board member at AARP - We need to rethink the caricature of old people not using the Internet. Many rely on it for many things, from researching health conditions to engaging in distance learning to telecommuting into their senior years. But not enough have access to broadband at home, especially in rural areas.

Margaret Conroy, Missouri state librarian - Contrary to popular belief the Internet has not brought about the end of libraries. Instead libraries have proven themselves to be important hubs for offering access to the Internet as well as training for how to use it. Sometimes libraries are the only place people can get this kind of access and information in their community.

Gene Peltola, president and CEO of Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation - He provided living proof of the impact of broadband in recounting tales like how they use teleradiology to send medical images from Alaska to Dayton, OH to tap into the medical expertise there, benefiting from a system where these remote diagnosis can be made in a matter of minutes. But he lamented numerous examples of how current government structures haven't adapted to support these new technologies, like the inability to get reimbursed by Medicare for medical services that cross state lines.

Overall this was a fantastic experience for my first time in a Senate hearing. While it was sometimes frustrating to constantly hear things I and anyone else who's been paying attention already know about why broadband matters, it was heartening to know that at least for some Senators these are important issues that demand their attention.

I look forward to working with those Senators and their staff to find collaborative solutions that can move past the rhetoric towards a more robust utilization of the transformative potential that broadband and its applications make possible for all parts of society.

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