Community Broadband Moves Beyond Entertainment

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The arrival of arms merchants validates a battle's significance. And selling to — or in this case, collaborating with — both sides in the war between cable modems and digital subscriber lines assures the supplier a piece of the action, no matter who wins.

Best of all for the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Community Media Center, its alliance with telco SBC/Ameritech leverages the group's 20-year cable local origination experience with AT&T Broadband and its predecessors in that community.

GRCMC, which produces programming for public-access cable channels, has focused its latest broadband efforts on "MOLLIE," the Mobile Learning Lab for Information Education, nicknamed "broadband on wheels."

Seeded with a grant from SBC Communications Inc., parent of the local telephone company, the MOLLIE van — equipped with computers and wireless connectivity — roams the Grand Rapids area, bringing broadband access to parts of town where it's not available or isn't easily accessible.

A migrant-workers group with ties to Mexico City is using MOLLIE's facilities to communicate with family and friends back home. Inner-city middle school students are building Web sites with MOLLIE facilities. And community activists have already figured out how to take advantage of the hardware and network to make regional connections.

MOLLIE contains 20 Apple Computer Corp. iBook laptops. When the van pulls into a neighborhood center or school, it sets up a local wireless network based on the 802.11b (WiFi) protocol. GRCMC is developing a faster 802.11a wireless LAN.

And here's where it gets interesting: the MOLLIE van also includes Sony Corp. video cameras, so the GRCMC staff can offer training in video and content production. Audio, video and computer data are routed from MOLLIE back to the GRCMC headquarters for potential transmission on public-access cable channels, Internet streaming or for use on a local FM radio station.

MOLLIE supplements an existing remote TV-production truck that GRCMC uses for its separate GRTV cable video-origination ventures.

Meanwhile, www.GrandNet.org
— the Web site for all of GRCMC's services — has a link from the AT&T Broadband home page. That leads to a variety of civic-network offerings, including an Internet service that GRCMC provides to local non-profit organizations.

GRCMC is also building an archive of local Web home pages. It already has an archive of video and film programs created for its public-access channels.

The multimedia approach transcends the broadband borders of the cable-vs.-DSL turf war.

Effervescent GRCMC director Dirk Konig said his motto is, "By any means necessary."

In his decades at the center, he has supervised development of the cable-related ventures, which now include hard-wired connections at 25 venues, providing video coverage of school and community events. One of the connections is to the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum.

It took nearly three years for Konig to win the $80,000 in initial MOLLIE funding from SBC. That "got things going," and led to a $243,000 U.S. Department of Education grant with matching funds raised by GRCMC. he said. The community group gets its recurring revenue from fees levied on cable broadband services, in addition to funding it culls from cable franchise fees.

MOLLIE and the GRCMC organization behind it represent more than just broadband opportunism. They demonstrate that broadband services reach far beyond entertainment.

Indeed, the DSL camp is trotting out ventures such as MOLLIE in its latest lobbying efforts. MOLLIE was a "star" at the recent Alliance of Public Technology Broadband Forum in Washington. The overarching message: Civic applications justify efforts to accelerate broadband deployment.

It's a not-very-subtle push for passage of a telco-friendly broadband bill sponsored by Reps. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.), as well as other federal initiatives meant to speed up phone providers's ability to expand their DSL facilities.

The APT, which receives significant funding from several telephone companies, established the theme "Enhanced Services, Enhanced Lives" for its forum early this month. Other services it touted was a commercial sign-language service that uses DSL to facilitate hearing-impaired business meetings. (Wow! "Commercial" doesn't always mean "advertising.")

Sign Language Associates, a Maryland firm, provides real-time interpretation via DSL video conferencing, an on-demand application that's both innovative and cost-efficient. A DSL connection links the remote sign-language interpreter with participants at a meeting, all of whom are using conventional video devices.

SLA vice president Mary Carr told the APT meetings that the setup offers the speed and viewing clarity sufficient to make such two-way meetings viable, unlike previous integrated services digital network (ISDN) technology. (There's also a warm irony in the obscure historic connection to Alexander Graham Bell's earliest ventures, which included extensive efforts to create services to assist the hearing impaired.)

APT also trotted out case studies in telemedicine, distance learning and other familiar applications that make use of DSL technology. Cable's broadband facilities can also be used for all such services, but there's a wide belief that cable is still about speed and entertainment — not necessarily the business and community services that the DSL camp is spotlighting. (Of course, telcos will also be glad to deliver movies, video and games via their high-speed networks if and when they can provide the reach.)

That's why GRCMC and its arms-merchant approach may be a prototype for future broadband-applications developers. Today's turf war between cable and DSL providers makes for exclusive showcase partnerships, but savvy applications providers will take advantage of any available pipeline.

How remarkable that competition may bubble up from an opportunistic community venture. Just as visionaries had hoped.

Access contributing curmudgeon Gary Arlen regularly in
Broadband Week.

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