Broadband lessons from Kentucky
PUTRAJAYA: What does the US state of Kentucky have in common with our state of Kedah? Would it be chicken platters — the famous American fried variety and our ayam goreng?
Yes, but the answer is also that both are mostly rural and their communities depend on the manufacturing industry for their livelihood.
Being a rural state, Kentucky had little in terms of technology and its economy was centered on manufacturing. But as the manufacturing industry waned in early 2000, the state had to start looking at how to sustain its economy.
Then in 2004 the Connected Nation, a US-based non-profit organisation, started its ICT (information and communications technology) initiative in the state.
“What we do is make people’s lives easier and more productive through technology,” said Brian Mefford, the chairman and CEO of Connected Nation.
“We work with the ICT industry and local communities to make computers, broadband and useful software applications available and relevant to everyone.”
When it started, Kentucky had a population of 4.2 million and 60% of the homes had Internet speeds of about 200Kbps (kilobits per second). That’s slow considering 1Mbps (megabit per second) is the norm for bearable websurfing.
“But at that time, 200Kbps was the US Federal Communications Commission minimum for fast web service,” said Mefford. “ And IT jobs in the state were declining by 6.4% per year.”
Connected Nation then partnered with federal, state and local governments, as well as major hardware and software vendors such as Microsoft and Dell, to create an effective plan for boosting broadband infrastructure and PC ownership in Kentucky.
Ready to help
Now, Mefford said, 95% of Kentuckians — including 546,000 new households — enjoy high-speed broadband Internet access. He did not have detailed figures at hand.
But according to broadband speed testing and survey website Speed Matters (http://bit.ly/3ulGEn), 55% of Kentuckians now experience broadband speeds of up to 6Mbps (megabits per second) and a further 26% of the population has access to speeds of up to 25Mbps.
Speed Matters is a project of the Communications Workers of America, a union representing 700,000 workers in communications, media, airlines, manufacturing, and public service.
Connected Nation’s chief strategy was to bring together the leaders from each sector, such as agriculture and manufacturing, to ascertain the best way to implement broadband technology.
It also had regular meetings to answer the people’s questions on broadband and to show how the technology would improve their lives and livelihood.
Since then, Connected Nation has started bridging the “digital divide” in other US states and even has some on-going projects in India. The divide refers to the gap between the technology haves and have-nots.
Mefford is confident a similar approach will boost broadband infrastructure and take up in Kedah and the other rural states in this country.
“We believe our strategies will work and we are keen to share our experiences with your government and ICT sector,” he said. “Obviously each country and market is different but the overall concept remains the same.”
Computers and broadband are vital for the progression of a nation’s communities, especially the rural, towards building a knowledge-based economy, Mefford added.
He was speaking to In.Tech on the sidelines of the 21st MSC Malaysia Implementation Council Meeting in Putrajaya on Monday.
Bumps in the road
Connected Nation, however, is taking flak from certain quarters for its Kentucky initiative and its subsequent efforts to boost broadband in the other US states.
Public Knowledge, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest group working to defend US citizens’ rights in the emerging digital culture, is a vociferous critic of Connecton Nation.
Art Brodsky, communications director of Public Knowledge, lashed out at Connected Nation in his January 2008 blog (www.publicknowledge.org/node/1334).
He accused Connected Nation of being “nothing more than a sales force and front group for (US telco) AT&T paid for by the telecommunications industry and by state and federal governments that has achieved far more in publicity than it has in actual accomplishment.”
For that, Brodsky has been both supported and criticised by readers of his blog.
If the group is nothing more than a shill for AT&T, “why do other broadband providers, like the Kentucky cable association and Comcast Cable, support it?” said Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, in the comments section of Brodsky’s blog.
Atkinson said Brodsky appears to have gone after Connected Nation because its mission is not to promote inter-modal competition, spur municipal broadband, or help “mom and pop” ISPs (Internet service providers) — all goals (that) Public Knowledge supports.
“Connected Nation’s goal is simpler: To get broadband to as many people as possible,” commented Atkinson.