The Second Annual Colorado Broadband Summit

Leaders in government, academia, and industry came together November 14 to discuss the benefits – and challenges – of expanding broadband access throughout Colorado. All told, around 300 guests from around the state and country attended the Second Annual Colorado Broadband Summit at Level 3 Communications in Broomfield.

Article by Eric Schmidt

Leaders in government, academia, and industry came together November 14 to discuss the benefits – and challenges – of expanding broadband access throughout Colorado. All told, around 300 guests from around the state and country attended the Second Annual Colorado Broadband Summit at Level 3 Communications in Broomfield. Panelists discussed the potential for widespread broadband access to improve education, health care, and energy conservation – but not before Colorado bridges a “digital divide” that currently means many rural and mountain communities lack the technological infrastructure to support such data-intensive applications.

Governor Bill Ritter, who campaigned on a “Colorado Promise” that included support for statewide broadband deployment, addressed the group about the importance of high-speed connectivity to the state’s economy and citizens. As Governor, Ritter established Colorado’s first Innovation Council and chartered it to, among other things, develop and oversee the state’s broadband policy.

“We believe that broadband is the electricity of the 21st century,” Ritter said. “It is a technology that has the power to change communities across Colorado, connect people to the global marketplace, bring new educational opportunities to areas without access, and even change the way people experience health care. We believe that the importance of broadband cannot be overstated.” Ritter said Colorado is “well on its way” toward the goal of statewide broadband access. Last spring, he encouraged the Colorado Legislature to enact Senate Bill 215, which charged the state’s chief information officer, in conjunction with the Innovation Council, with the mapping of where broadband connections are available throughout the state. This effort, which will be completed by the spring of 2009, will encourage broadband providers to serve parts of the state where broadband is not currently available and will enable the state to evaluate future broadband initiatives.

In an afternoon panel on the Colorado Broadband Initiative, speakers said that mapping of the state’s current broadband infrastructure will be presented to the legislature in spring 2009. The state will then work with the private sector to help facilitate broadband deployment to underserved areas, with the potential for legislative incentives as early as 2010. Panelists included moderator Cathy Fogler, co-chair of the Innovation Council’s Broadband Taskforce; John Conley, state deputy chief information officer; Ken Fellman, former mayor of Arvada; and Dara Hessee, legislative liaison and director of special projects for the state Office of Information Technology.

A panel on broadband and energy conservation featured moderator Raymond Gifford, Silicon Flatirons senior adjunct fellow and former chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission; Skip Arnold, executive director of Energy Outreach Colorado; Scott Binder, regional senior vice president for Comcast; Ron Binz, current chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission; and Adrian Tuck, CEO of Tendril and vice chairman of the ZigBee Alliance. Panelists discussed the potential for broadband to revolutionize home energy conservation through the so-called “Prius effect” – the idea that real-time feedback on energy use encourages consumers to use energy more efficiently. That could lead to new pricing structures with incentives not to use energy at times of peak demand, although panelists noted that such technology must be accessible to low-income households so they don’t inadvertently bear the brunt of demand-based rate increases.

Another panel discussed broadband and health care delivery, featuring moderator Sandy Rothe, co-chair of the SB196 Health IT Advisory Committee; Suzanne Brennan, senior program officer for the Colorado Health Foundation; Jason Greer, health information technology director for the Colorado Associated Community Health Information Exchange; Dr. Randall Moore, chairman, president, and CEO of American Telecare, Inc.; Dick Thompson, executive director of the Quality Health Network; and Steve Ward, vice president for rural health and hospitals for the Colorado Hospital Association. Panelists said expanded broadband access could improve care and reduce costs, particularly in rural areas where hospitals are few and far between. Broadband could allow doctors to share radiology images, tests results, and medical records electronically, eliminating the expense of duplicate tests at each facility and diverting patients with chronic illnesses out of emergency rooms. But for that to happen, panelists said, broadband must be available in isolated locations, and health care facilities must coordinate to implement compatible technology.

Broadband connectivity could also bring new educational opportunities to “place-bound” students separated from traditional schools and universities by geography or other reasons, said members of a panel on broadband and distance learning. The group included moderator Edward VanderTook, executive director of the Mountain Board of Cooperative Educational Services; Julie Carnahan, chief academic officer for the Colorado Department of Higher Education; Dr. Ed Freeman, CIO and CTO for Denver Public Schools; Pamela Hoppe Ice, director of online learning for the Colorado Department of Education; Kendrick McLish, vice president of products and marketing for eCollege; and Sharon Montgomery; vice president for government and education solutions at Qwest Communications. All agreed that “the sky is the limit” for online distance learning, which could promote efficient resource sharing between educational institutions and make advanced classes available to students everywhere in Colorado – even in the prison system. The challenge, panelists said, is to expand broadband connectivity into the communities that need it most for distance learning and ensure online courses maintain the same high standards of quality as in traditional classrooms.

A final panel examined state and local government perspectives on broadband deployment, with Fogler as moderator; Jim Considine, IT director for the City of Aspen and Pitkin County; Don Elliman, director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade; Susan Kirkpatrick, executive director of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs; Michael Locatis, state chief information officer; and state Senator Gail Schwartz. With Colorado’s educated workforce and diverse mix of industries, broadband access could connect qualified workers with good jobs in all parts of the state, panelists said. Government can help by promoting coordination with the private sector and ensuring political and regulatory hurdles don’t unnecessarily delay deployment. “I look at broadband as a piece of infrastructure – like a road or a pipeline – that has enormous potential for promoting the economic well-being of our state,” panelist Elliman said.

James Crowe, president and CEO of Level 3 Communications, delivered a keynote address exploring the meaning of “broadband” and urging the audience to embrace and promote the still-emerging technology. The Federal Communications Commission currently defines broadband as any connection faster than 768 kilobits per second, he said, but it would take 15 terabits – trillions of bits per second — to deliver true “telepresence” with the resolution of human vision. That means the industry is still in its early stages of innovation, and today’s broadband will inevitably be the narrow-band of the future as technology makes more advanced applications possible, he said. Society should come to recognize ubiquitous access to information as a basic necessity in the 21st century, Crowe said. “Policymakers need to decide what access to the Internet constitutes basic communication service, and we need to set up a system that ensures Americans can participate fully in that level of basic communications,” he said.

A video of the Broadband Summit is available here; the Rocky Mountain News article describing the event is available here.

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