Lightpath proposal would unite public media, education for faster broadband

by Steve Behrens, Current

‘Let’s drive that thing,” Joaquín Alvarado urged the webmasters and pubcasters at the Integrated Media Association’s Public Media Conference Feb. 19 in Atlanta. “How many of you folks are right now planning your NTIA grant?”

Alvarado, a filmmaker and media advocate who founded the National Public Lightpath project that CPB, PBS and NPR endorsed in their January letter to President-elect Obama, was talking about a $7.2 billion public-service opportunity in federal economic-stimulus spending.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has orders to spend $4.7 billion without delay on grants and loans to expand broadband service in unserved and underserved areas (text of legislation), and the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service has $2.5 billion for similar purposes (text of legislation).

The object is to spend much of these billions within four months and the rest by the end of 2010. On March 10, NTIA, Agriculture’s Office of Rural Development and the FCC will hold a 90-minute open meeting in Washington (PDF) on the stimulus bill’s broadband initiatives and will webcast the event at

Amendments to the stimulus bill removed the original bill’s priority on spending to develop super-fast broadband hookups, such as the fiber-optic connections advocated by National Public Lightpath, which tend to be 10 gigabits per second or faster.

But grantees will be able to pursue next-gen speeds, says Elizabeth Beaty, executive director of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, which reps municipal cable regulators and others. “While this legislation does not include the speeds originally proposed, it does indicate if we want to complete globally, DSL is not enough,” Beaty told Current in an interview.

Americans are “horribly behind” other advanced countries in next-generation Internet speeds, Alvarado said. He quizzed the conference crowd in Atlanta: How many in the techie audience had a hookup that runs 10 gigs a second or faster? Six did. “In most industrialized countries, everyone would raise their hands,” and they’d have speeds ranging up to 50 Gbps, Alvarado said.

Alvarado, director of the Institute for Next Generation Internet at San Francisco State University and former chair of the Bay Area Video Coalition, urged conference attendees to “get the public media world into the game” in rural and urban communities alike, in alliance with local colleges, governments and nonprofits.

The agenda of reasons for broadband expansion listed by the Obama administration, including education, health-care information and regional economic development, “sounds like the mission statements of public media.”

“We are not actively engaged enough,” he added. “We are not seen as the must-have, going forward.”

Universities in many communities have next-gen Internet speeds, but the people in rural and inner-city areas, as well as many schools, don’t, he said. “It is rare that I walk into a K-12 school environment that has access to great content over the Internet,” he said. “We are failing the largest generation of K-12 learners in the history of Earth.”

“We’ve got to knock on the doors of the university and say, ‘Come help us.’ ”

National Public Lightpath “will help you write the story, find the partnerships if you don’t have them right now within the university system,” Alvarado said.

For media groups such as public TV stations, faster Internet access could revolutionize intercity collaboration on producing and using video, Alvarado said. As former chair of the Bay Area Video Coalition, he knows that today’s Internet is a huge bottleneck.

He also argues for expanded broadband for families and other media users, for the new generation of informal education that kids find online. The Internet, he says, is not designed to handle the volume of video that ordinary users are demanding.

He provided a major take-home for IMA attendees, mentioning that YouTube has become the Internet’s No. 2 search engine after Google. reported in December that usage data for YouTube, if separated from its parent Google, surpassed Yahoo’s search traffic last year.

That’s not surprising if you consider how many people want to get information from video. Alvarado said his son starts a web research project by going to YouTube and proceeds from there. “There are very few things quite as effective as 20 good seconds of video to help orient you,” he said.

article originally published at

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey