Print Email Facebook Twitter Release Share Font Size: A A A A
Murrow hosts forum
Experts, citizens debate challenges of rural communication
Friday, Apr. 6, 2012
By Larry Ganders, Edward R. Murrow College of Communication
Information loss threatens
The Murrow forum is part of a national project involving 12 of the country’s leading journalism programs addressing recent losses of newsroom positions as a threat to the quality of civic information in communities nationwide.
The Murrow College joins 11 other journalism schools throughout the nation in the study. The deans of the colleges will meet in June at Harvard University.
Participants in the WSU symposium included representatives from newspaper, radio and television management; telecommunications firms; technology industry groups; libraries; broadband; government; education and citizen journalism.
PULLMAN, Wash. – Robust Internet access is as vital to state economic development as the highway system, but challenges impede its use for informing and connecting citizens, according to participants in a rural needs symposium hosted by the Washington State University Edward R. Murrow College of Communication this week.
Political, regulatory, economic and social challenges to broadband news and other communication were discussed during the closed experts’ forum, "Rural Access, Digital Citizenship and the Obligations of the Washington State Information Sector.”
Government and regulations
Fiber and wireless systems together were seen as an essential broadband investment for the state’s economic health and an informed citizenry.
"Economic development follows the trucks that are laying the fiber highway,” said Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, chairman of the state House Technology, Energy and Communications Committee. None of the major business developments by the Tulalip Tribe would have been possible without broadband, he said.
State legislators don’t always appreciate the importance of broadband Internet, and local government officials sometimes hinder efforts to deliver technology services to their communities, McCoy said.
For example, it can be difficult to get local permission to build cell towers, said Dan Youmans of AT&T Washington. And his company has encountered many problems attempting to place and maintain service boxes in Seattle for its underground broadband cable, said Tom Novotney of CenturyLink.
An indication of the problem is that no committee in the state Senate is expressly designated to deal with technology issues, said Milt Doumit, a vice president with Verizon Wireless Pacific Northwest.
The Internet freeway is not being viewed as a necessary investment, said Angela Wu, former chief of the state broadband office and founder of Move-it Online, a nonprofit broadband consulting firm.
Capacity, costs and news
Just over half of the households in Washington have broadband connections, ranking it seventh in the nation, said Frieda Ray, outreach coordinator for the Washington State Broadband Office. The state’s broadband Internet capacity has been doubling annually, participants said.
But at the federal level, there is concern by the telecommunications industry that the government will not allow adequate radio bandwidth for the expanding wireless industry, Youmans said. This increasing capacity is necessary, for example, for using software to mine raw public information from government databases, said Matt Rosenberg of Public Data Ferret.
Public access to such information becomes more important as traditional news sources have declined. In many locations, the financial stress of the economy has resulted in cuts in local news coverage and reduced distribution, said Michael Shepard, senior vice president of the Seattle Times.
But he said the emergence of digital technology has provided new opportunities and challenges for an industry that once relied nearly entirely on distributing news in print. News outlets are transitioning to a greater reliance on Web delivery, but they wrestle with how to generate the necessary revenues to pay for the operations.
There has been a debate in the industry over whether to charge fees for online access to news stories. Bill Will, of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, predicted many more newspapers will begin charging for online news.
Poverty and access
Also struggling financially are Washington’s rural communities. Rural areas that have little or no access to the Internet often have high poverty rates and high levels of state medical, economic and vocational services, said Ray.
"For instance, Yakima, Grays Harbor, Whatcom, Ferry and Clallam County all have areas with no broadband provider,” she said.
Grants are available to communities to help them gain better access to broadband and utilize it, she said, giving examples of a Reardan quilt business and a Whidbey Island specialty shop that both make sales daily overseas because of broadband connections.
In the small town of St. John, the local telephone company secured a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan to run broadband fiber optic cable directly to each home within a nine-mile radius, said Becky Dickerson, editor and publisher of the Community Current Newspaper.
Promoting use of technology
Once the technology is in place, however, there is sometimes an obstacle to using it. New technologies are intimidating and overwhelming to many people, Wu said.
Discussion often focused on the "digital divide” that separates state residents who easily utilize digital equipment such as laptops, tablets and smart phones from those who have limited use or no access.
Some suggested that newspapers and other news organizations could assist in promoting the use of digital equipment and broadband access. Newspaper officials indicated they do run stories on technology, but the job of encouraging people to use broadband services should fall primarily on the companies that would profit from the use.
Providing equipment, access and education increasingly is becoming a service of local libraries, said Kristie Kirkpatrick, Whitman County library director. "We’re their source,” she said.
Read an earlier article about the forum here.
For more information about the forum, contact Larry Ganders at the Murrow College, 360-280-6320 or email@example.com.