Internet access by disadvantaged groups Archive

Australia looks towards integrating Internet as a universal service

Article

Broadband router lights

Could broadband be considered part of the Universal Service Obligation in Australia?

Making Internet Access A Right, Not A Privilege | Gizmodo Australia

From the horse’s mouth

Productivity Commission

Telecommunications Universal Service Obligation (Inquiry Page)

My Comments

An issue that I have previously covered is the universal service obligation being extended to broadband Internet service. The universal service obligation is a minimum standard for providing telecommunications services across a country or other jurisdiction with it being funded through different paths like government funding and/or a levy on telecommunications services that are being provided with this funding subsidising financially-difficult service-provisioning scenarios such as rural areas. In some cases, it also includes having the jurisdiction’s welfare system cover the provision of these services to eligible disadvantaged people through a special benefit or subsidised services.

Some jurisdictions have started taking action towards this goal such as through establishing a minimum bandwidth for Internet services. Now Australia’s Productivity Commission are investigating the possibility of extending the Australian Universal Service Obligation beyond landline voice telephony to broadband Internet service of a minimum standard. This is due to a reality that most of the business that people engage in, especially the essential tasks like applying for jobs or government services, is being performed via Internet-based technologies rather than by voice phone calls.

The Productivity Commission’s goal is to make sure that a reasonable-standard broadband Internet service is accessible to all Australians. This includes assurance of access by people living in rural, regional or remote areas where it would normally be costly to provide proper broadband service; along with assuring access to these services by disabled people or those who have financial hardship.

They want to have a technology-neutral approach but with a minimum upload and download bandwidth. This also includes a minimum benchmark for assured reliability and data throughput. Like the original Universal Service Obligation, this extension to encompass broadband Internet service will be publicly funded in various ways.

A good question that can be raised is whether the Universal Service Obligation will cover fixed telephony and Internet services only or will be extended to mobile setups which can be considered by some as a “discretionary service”.

Personally, I would recommend that there is investigation regarding how other countries have approached Internet service as part of the Universal Service Obligation, including the kind of benefits that have been provided to disabled or disadvantaged users for this service by the nation’s welfare platform. As well, investigating the role of competition including at the infrastructure level in providing decent broadband Internet that is affordable and accessible for all.

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Using school buses to provide Internet to poorer communities

Articles

Yellow school bus - Wikimedia Commons image courtesy of H, Michael Miley

These yellow school buses are being used not just for transporting schoolchildren but to provide Internet to poorer communities in the US

Wi-Fi-enabled school buses leave no child offline | PBS Newshour

Wi-Fi-Enabled Bus Connects Students in Poor Calif. Community | Education Week

What to do for kids with no internet at home? How about parking a wifi-enabled school bus near their trailer park? | Hechinger Report

How one of the poorest districts in the US pipes Wi-Fi to families – using school buses | The Register

My Comments

Coachella Valley in California is a rural community often associated with one of the trendiest rock music festivals in the USA. But when the musicians and fans pack up and leave this district, it reverts to having the attributes of a highly-disadvantaged rural community based primarily around trailer parks including lack of decent Internet access.

This is a situation that has been found to hold back secondary students who want to push on with their studies especially as today’s method of learning is focused towards online learning. One of many situations was that families were heading out to Starbucks or McDonalds or their schools’ parking lots to use the on-site Wi-Fi public-access Internet service. Another situation was a student staying back late at the school to complete an online assignment because their family couldn’t trust the Internet connection they had back at home.

But the Coachella Valley Unified School District have provided an innovative way of solving this problem by implementing in-vehicle Wi-Fi Internet connectivity in the school buses. Each bus implements a modem router connected to a mobile broadband service and dispersing the Internet access inside the bus and to 100 yards (91.44 metres) from the bus, similar to what some premium bus routes are doing. This network is set up for the school students to use through the use of particular software installed on the students’ tablets.

This setup would work when the vehicle is underway during a school-bus run but the school district wanted to run this setup with vehicles that are parked. They tried it out running the modem routers off the vehicle’s batteries alone but it could run for an hour with the batteries not providing enough juice to start the bus’s engine after that hour.

So one of the teachers put forward a solar-based solution to supply enough power from a roof-mounted solar panel array to run the modem router and in-vehicle network. Here, this didn’t put strain on the vehicle’s batteries thus avoiding the risk of losing the power needed to turn the engine over on a cold morning.

The buses would be parked in the trailer parks or near the communities so that students can wander down with their portable computing equipment to do the necessary study while under adult supervision. For example, if the community has a clubhouse or community hall, the bus would be near that facility.

There are further plans for the Coachella Valley Unified School District to take this concept further such as using donated or salvaged cars for the same purpose or even creating a community-access Wi-Fi Internet service. The usual remarks that I would most likely hear in relationship to enabling a disadvantaged community with real broadband is that such broadband services will end up being used for pornography viewing which would lead on to a downward family-abuse spiral.

Personally, I would also like to see the Coachella Valley Unified School District approach Google and others who roll out competitive broadband service to target the areas in the school district’s remit for competitive real-broadband service. Similarly, the school district could work toward helping the adults in their community by providing onsite public-access Internet facilities like an Internet café or Wi-Fi hotspot in these communities.

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FCC plans to subsidise broadband for low-income households

Article US Flag By Dbenbenn, Zscout370, Jacobolus, Indolences, Technion. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

FCC Crafting Plan to Subsidize Low Income Broadband | Broadband News & DSL Reports

From the horse’s mouth

FCC

Commission Document (Press Release)

Lifeline – explanation guide (worth reading for those of you who don’t live in the USA)

My Comments

The Federal Communications Commission’s Chairman Tom Wheeler has put a proposal amongst the fellow Commissioners to create a subsidised broadband program for the USA’s low-income households.

This will be a modification of the Lifeline subsidised-telephony program which the Reagan administration started in the 1980s in order to extend its remit to broadband Internet service. The Lifeline program, funded by a universal-service-obligation levy that is paid by the US’s telephone customers or the telco they use, provides a discount on telephony services to eligible low-income households.

The modification will also incorporate stronger anti-fraud measures so that the money goes to the subsidised-communications programs rather than telcos “taking the money and running”.

It has been found that marginalised communities like blacks and Latinos are not likely to as connected as white people. But there is an “elephant in the room” that is not mentioned concerning computer literacy which drives the desire to connect to broadband service. From my recent experience with helping some households with their personal IT, I have seen some cases where computer literacy being linked to general literacy. Here, a subsidised-broadband program could also be about facilitating local computer-literacy programs in the affected neigbourhoods such as through schools offering “after-hours” classes or community centres running workshops.

Oh yeah, you may think that a subsidised broadband program for low-income communities will lead towards waste in the form of constant YouTube-viewing or “one-handed surfing” (viewing of pornographic material). But broadband is become increasingly relevant because it is becoming the norm to do business online including applying for jobs, getting a business up and running, or interacting with government agencies.

The Universal Service Fund programs like Lifeline and eRate have been subject of criticism due to fraud and waste occurring within carriers and other companies. Primarily this is where the companies simply “take the money and run” and the FCC are in the dark about how it is being used. There is also the issue of how to raise this money, especially where new or increased universal-service-obligation levies on Internet and other communications services are not popular with customers where they are paying a premium for these services.

Other factors that the FCC want to consider include redefining the minimum “at the door” bandwidth that constitutes a broadband service along with overriding protectionist state laws that protect incumbent operators by prohibiting the existence of competing broadband service.

The former issue concerns the actual bandwidth that a customer benefits from because of DSL services that are affected by line distance and quality or cable services which are affected by the line quality and number of subscribers. The latter affects cities being able to “open the door” to fibre-optic installations or Wi-Fi hotzones ran by themselves or independent operators like the Google Fiber installations or municipal Wi-Fi hotzones.

I would still like to see this also factor in mobile-broadband setups which will be considered important with homeless and nomadic people. This is more so as the scope of homelessness is encompassing continual couch-surfing or living in emergency and “inn-like” accommodation like refuges, hostels and motels rather than a long-term home. Similarly, the Lifeline program could be evolved to encompass mobile telecommunications for people in these situations.

Similarly, there has to be a minimum level of quality expected for carrier-supplied customer-premises equipment that is used for Lifeline-subsidised Internet services. Here, it would prevent ISPs and telcos supplying underperforming equipment to these customers.

What is really needed for the US broadband market is to see real competition rather than a cosy duopoly or cartel of providers providing the service. This will then lower the prices that people pay for broadband and increase real value-for-money for these services.

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Google Fibre breaks the digital divide in one of Austin’s public-housing communities

Article – From the horse’s mouth

Google Fiber

Blog Post

Housing Authority for the City of Austin

Digital Inclusion document (PDF)

My Comments

Lenovo Thinkpad G50-70 Laptop

Google Fiber to enable digital literacy in poorer communities

Google Fiber is participating in a community-based initiative to break the digital divide in the public-housing communities in Austin, Texas as part of their rollout in to that city.

This is a public-private affair in co-operation with the Housing Authority for the City of Austin which is a local-government-run public-housing authority in that city. The main premise of this exercise is that every child to have a chance to succeed in the 21st century global economy, but I also see as being important adults including mature adults and senior citizens who haven’t had much exposure to computing and technology in their school and work life also benefiting.

It is also encompassing training and study in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. As well, the program is also providing access to devices and affordable Internet connectivity in the public-housing districts. For example, Google Fiber is intending to provide for HACA development in their fibre footprint, free basic Internet service for each household for 10 years, with the option to upgrade to the “full-on” Gigabit connection for extra cost.

There is the all-important support for the household’s devices including the necessary digital-literacy training, something that typically is provided on an ad-hoc basis to these households by family and friends and it is being provided by Austin Free-Net.

What I see of this is an attempt by public and private efforts to help poorer communities with access to today’s technology for productive activities and expose people, young and old, to today’s technology. What needs to be underscored in the remit for these programs is that it is not just the children who are intended to benefit but adults, especially mature adults and senior citizens who spent most of their school and work life before the desktop-computer-driven 1980s, who need to become technologically literate. As well, the remit to help with computer literacy for older generations cuts across all social classes.

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Public phone booths becoming public Wi-Fi hotspots

Articles

Telstra public phone booth

One of the public phone booths that is becoming a wireless hotspot

150 free Telstra Wi-Fi hotspots go live today | PC World

Pay Phones in New York City Will Become Free Wi-Fi Hot Spots | New York Times

My Comments

Increasingly public payphones are becoming more irrelevant in today’s mobile-phone society, simply serving as access to telephony for those who can’t get a mobile phone service or as a failover solution if your mobile phone’s battery dies or you run out of uesable credit on a prepaid mobile-telephony service. Other than that, they become a shelter from a sudden downpour or to talk quietly with one another or “fix oneself up quickly”. They are even mentioned in that Men At Work song “Touching The Untouchables” (Spotify link) as a quiet space for the homeless – “Spend My Nights In The Telephone Booth / I Make Sure I Leave The Phone Off The Hook”.

These are being seen as a waste of money for incumbent telcos or cities who are charged with maintaining these payphones. But incumbent telcos like Telstra are charged with having to provide these phones as part of providing the universal telephony service.

What is happening now is that Telstra and the City Of New York are integrating Wi-FI hotspot finctionality in to the phone booths. Telstra, as Australia’s incumbent telecommunications provider responsible for the universal telephone service, is adding this functionality to its phone booths which have the fully-functional public payphones while the City of New York is replacing existing phone booths with the hotspots. These will offer an IP-based speakerphone function to allow calls across the USA as well as a charging station for smartphones that run out of juice. Their cost will be covered by outdoor advertising that is attached to these booths.

One group that these services will benefit are those of us who are on mean mobile data plans and have to use the public-access Wi-Fi with our smartphones or other mobile devices to apply for a job through an online form or find out material online. With some of us, we have to use Skype or Viber VoIP services to make free calls between correspondents who have the same service on our phones to save money.

This could be seen as a way to help establish a universal Internet service especially if the service provider is involved with using the public payphones as part of their commitment to the universal telephone service.

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Local Government to become an Internet provider option in Australia

Article

Watch out Optus and Telstra: local councils want to become NBN internet providers | The Age

My Comments

Tree on a country property

Local government could also improve the reality of proper broadband in the country

As the Australian National Broadband Network’s technology option changes towards something akin to BT Openreach in the UK which is based around a fibre-copper technology, another option for service provision is creeping in to the equation.

This is where some local councils are stepping in to become local retail Internet service providers with the NBN as a wholesale backbone. This kind of practice has been tried in Australia for some utilities normally sold by a larger government-owned or privately-owned entity that has a larger geographic remit. An example of this is the retail-level sale of electricity to the consumer by some local councils or entities ran by these local councils, one of which was the former City of Box Hill in Melbourne.

As far as Internet service is concerned, some local governments have provided free-access Wi-Fi hotzones in their towns’ central-business-districts in the USA. This was much to the ire of established incumbent telecommunications providers and cable-TV companies who see this “threatening their patch”. It also raised the ire of Republicans, especially those supporting the “Tea Party” agenda, along with various libertarian and pro-business think-tanks because this was appearing to be government having a strong hand in the provision of public Internet service.

Some people can easily see this as a “do-good” effort by local government to raise the digital-access standards in their neighbourhoods of remit such as by, for example, using council rates to cross-subsidise the prices charged to householders for the communications services. This could be targeted at households who are on limited means like pensioners or people looking for work, or could be targeted at community organisations and small businesses that the council is nurturing.

House that may be fixed up

Local government being involved with providing Internet could raise the value of a neighbourhood

Similarly, the councils could use their power as retail ISPs to pay the NBN to equip neighbourhoods with fibre-to-the-premises or equip rural settlements or townships not considered large enough to equip with a fibre-copper service with one of these services. This would be part of their effort to invest in their cities and towns by raising the bar for Internet service in these areas, thus bringing in one or more valuable employers or raising residential property values.  This same effort could also be about making it harder for NBN or a retail carrier or ISP to postpone setting up a neighbourhood for next-generation Internet because it is on the “wrong side of the tracks”.

To see this work properly, local government has to realise that they will be competing with other retail telecommunications carriers and Internet service providers when reselling consumer and small-business telecommunications and Internet service.

If the idea of a local council obtaining a carrier licence and setting up as an ISP doesn’t play properly, they can do what has been practiced in Europe. This is where local government, along with a local chamber-of-commerce actually pays NBN to install fibre-to-the-premises through the town as a way to raise the property values or draw in the high-value employers.

At least the local government in Australia are seeing the potential that the National Broadband Network has and are looking towards taking it further to improve that town.

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Another effort in France to link the needy to the online world

Articles – French language

Emmaüs apporte Internet aux sans-abris – DegroupNews.com

Emmaüs Connect lance un programme d’accès à Internet | LeMonde Informatique

My Comments

Another effort is taking place to bring the poorer urban communities to the digital world in France. In that country, the ability to have decent broadband Internet and telephony is effectively a requirement in life due to the highly-competitive broadband market that exists there.

This is being set up by Emmaüs who help out the poorer people find housing and get a job. Emmaüs have formed a program called Emmaüs Connect which is to bridge the digital-divide gap to these communities.

This is being set up in conjunction with SFR and is based on mobile broadband technologies using a prepaid service. In France, 57% of the populace who live below an income of €900 / month don’t have access to their own Internet service. The Internet component is being considered important because of its relevance to performing personal administrative tasks such as paying bills; as well as finding work.

The Internet component is serviced by a 3G “Mi-Fi” router which is part of the prepaid service that works on a rolling 9-month contract.  Participants would be expected to pay up €1 per month to benefit from the program, which SFR refers to as the “Option Solidaire”.

Initially this program was rolled out around Paris but is being pushed out to other cities like Marseilles, Grenoble, St Denis and Antony. They are also targeting a rural area in Roanne so as to reach out to rural communities. There is a goal to set up 100,000 of these programs across France by the end of 2014.

Of course, this may be something that is scoffed at in the Anglo-American business world who value fast profit no matter the cost to others. But it is an activity being organised by a non-profit charity in conjunction with a regular telecommunications company and is something not to be scoffed at.

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Telstra gets closer to splitting its wireline communications operations

Article

Telstra lodges its plan to split | The Australian

Previous Coverage

Telstra split ‘wont fix monopoly’ according to rivals

My Comments

As I have previously mentioned in this site, there needs to be further action taken concerning providing a wireline telecommunications service that is really competitive. The idea of Telstra splitting its telecommunications business between wholesale and retail is still about moving the wireline infrastructure to another entity with monopoly powers. This is compared to France where fibre-optic Internet can be provisioned by competing interests who have their own fibre-optic infrastructure but have access to the same ducts, poles, wiring closets and other physical infrastructure.

Other issues that weren’t raised included the definition and provision of the basic telecommunications service. This includes whether universal-service funds should be set up to competitively provide this service, how the national emergency-contact service is to be provided and how disaster-relief and social-telecommunications needs are to be provided in a competitive world. As I have said before, it would be best to look at what the UK and France are doing as they have moved from a government-run “PTT-style” telecommunications monopoly to a lively competitive telecommunications environment.

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£98–The price to break the digital divide in the UK

News Articles

BBC News – £98 PCs target UK digital divide

Race Online 2012 to bring sub-£100 PC’s to market | ThnikBroadband.com (UK)

Web site

http://raceonline2012.org

My comments

Some parts of Britain are now providing disadvantaged people with access to subsidised computer equipment for GBP98 and are providing wireless-broadhand Internet access facilitated by Three Broadband, at GBP9 per month or GBP18 for three months; as part of a 12-month “IT-enablement” trial.

The idea behind this subsidised IT program, which is run by the “Race Online 2012” action group, is to allow access to online skills for study and work. In some cases, the study may be online only such as through distance-learning options like Open University or may require a significant amount of time spent online for the course.

One benefit will be that the program will be working with computer-education facilities around the UK and also provide telephone-based support for the users. This, in my opinion, would also need to respect the needs of people who most likely wouldn’t be computer-literate.

Usually, this class of user will end up with, at best, a “hand-me-down” computer which is very slow at best. They may not get any sort of Internet or may be lucky to get an ADSL broadband service for their Internet connection.

As far as I know, the computers will typically be refurbished units, most likely desktops. But I often wonder what condition they will be refurbished to especially that an ATX-standard “mini-tower” desktop system could be renewed with modest but new hardware at a cost-effective price. The systems will typically come with a flatscreen monitor, keyboard and mouse and come with Linux and other open-source software. The previously-mentioned Internet connection will be provided with a USB-connected wireless-broadhand modem. This solution may cater for the “prepaid-mobile-only” households that wouldn’t be deemed acceptable to run a landline phone service with ADSL Internet due to poor credit standings.

Remploy, who are a supported-workshop program for assisting young people with employment skills and who are behind this program, have a goal to sell 8000 machines in 12 months

Issues that may be raised

Security

It may be so easy to think that Linux may be hard to hack, being a UNIX-derived operating system and not-so-popular, but there would have to be someone like AVG working on a free “household-grade” desktop security package, This is because hackers can turn their attention to any operating system even though it may not be popularly deployed and, as I know in the days when MS-DOS started to become the popular operating environment, other desktop operating environments were still as vulnerable and I always hold that belief.

3G wireless broadband the answer for Internet service?

Some of us may find that the 3G wireless-broadband technology may not be enough for Internet service to this community as the only broadband technology. This is because some neighbourhoods may provide very low or non-existent coverage, especially if the device is a 3G “stick” modem.

There have been other ways of providing cost-effective “always-on” broadband Internet. For example, I reported previously (older article, article after SFR takeover) in 2008 on this site about some public-housing developments in Paris, France have been set up with “Triple-Play Social” with 512kbps Internet, regular broadcast TV and inbound telephone use for 1 euro per month courtesy of SFR / Neuf Cegetel. This bandwidth could provide enough bandwidth for most Internet activities.  Some of these activities could be observed especially as there is an increased rollout of next-generation broadband Internet service in most countries.

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Finland – the first country to actually have a universal broadband Internet service obligation in place

News Articles

Internet for all, declares Finland | The Age Technology (Australia)

Finland the first country in the world to make broadband access a legal right | Engadget

Is Broadband a Basic Right? Finland Says Yes! | GigaOM

My comments

Previously, I had written a post on this blog about Finland proposing to establish universal access to broadband Internet with a minimum speed of 1Mbps as a basic right. This was in response to the usual blogosphere comments about a legal right to download BitTorrents of movies and similar content in that country when this news was initially broken, and I was stating it as a preparation ground for IP-based video services, VoIP telephony and the ability to use the Internet to do business competitively.

Now this goal has become real with the Finnish government with them establishing certain Internet providers as “universal service providers” who have to provide the service for 30-40€ / month. Another issue that hasn’t been raised in the press coverage is how Finland will finance this universal-service obligation.

This is whether through:

  • spending by the government out of the country’s annual budget
  • a levy on telecommunications or Internet services (current practice in the US for the universal telephone service)
  • annexing the TV-licence or similar audiovisual-service fee used to fund the public broadcast service (UK’s proposed solution) or
  • simply letting the universal-service providers charge more for discretionary services (current practice in Australia with Telstra).

One of the articles was also looking at idea of the US adopting a similar “bill-of-rights” method for protecting the standard of Internet service in that country. This is even though there is a lawsuit filed by Comcast against the FCC that is currently in progress concerning Net neutrality and the right if the state to have their hand in the provision of Internet service.

What I see of this is that Finland has led the pack by being the first country to write in their law books that broadband Internet be provided as a universal service in a similar manner to mains electricity or the telephone service. It will be interesting to see who will be the next country to take tbis step seriously.

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