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Broadband authority has first public meeting

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By Mark Scohier

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the North Florida Broadband Authority.

    Tuesday evening, at the Cedar Key Public Library, the NFBA had its first of what representatives said will soon become quarterly meetings about broadband internet service in the authority's service area, which includes 15 counties.

    Pat Lien, a representative from Government Services Group Inc., which manages the NFBA, said at the meeting that the organization was put together as a way for the region to receive federal grant money.  Last year, the NFBA was awarded about $30 million from federal stimulus money.

    A few years ago, according to Lien, the state determined that the 15-county region was suffering from a host of economic and social barriers.  The area has the highest poverty levels in the state and the lowest median household income.  Education suffers, as well, he said.

    “Every county in the region is below the state average in high school graduation rates,”  Lien told about a dozen people attending the meeting.  Having access to broadband can help with these issues, he said.

    Access to broadband will create economic opportunities for places like Levy County, he said.  It could open new markets, attract new businesses and enable local businesses to compete on a state, national and international level.

    Broadband could also enable government agencies to be more efficient and effective, something he said would save money and increase safety, access and communication.  It could increase educational opportunities and provide other forms of entertainment, as well.

    Still, Lien admitted that it's hard to say when broadband will make it to areas like Levy County.

    “The hardest thing to describe is when,” he said.  Beginning in January, Lien said, NFBA will begin the deployment process associated with tapping in to the fiber pathways already established underground in the region.  The NFBA's goal is to have that complete in 12 to 18 months, he said.  But that only establishes points that other providers will have to link up with, and he said NFBA has no control over how long that will take.  “It's not up to us,” he said.

    During the question-and-answer segment of the meeting, several people had questions about the  integrity of the system, regulation, funding and security.

    Lien explained that the system, or network, will eventually be connected at so many different points that the broadband signal would be hard to break.

    “Even if there was a fiber cut, the traffic would simply be rerouted another direction.”

    As far as regulation, Lien said there is currently no agency that would oversee the sending of a broadband signal.

    And the technology is secure, according to Pat O'Neal, a Cedar Key commissioner and representative with the NFBA in attendance at the meeting.

    “It's not like being able to pick up, let's say, a wireless telephone.  It's not like that.”

O'Neal explained that a broadband signal is not broadcast out in a wide arc like a radio signal.  It's focused from one point to another, he said.

    “You would have to be in a cherry picker or an aircraft ( to intercept the signal),” he said.  “Most people don't want to spend that kind of money to hear what you have to say.”

    After the meeting, one of the attendees, Lisa Brasher, said she is looking forward to broadband access.  Brasher is the director of the Levy County Public Library System, and said she sees, on a day-to-day basis, how important good internet access is.

    “We're finding our connections are tremendously overloaded,” she said.  “Anything that could improve that is of tremendous value to Levy County.”

    Brasher said about 67 percent of the county doesn't have computers or internet service.  That makes it hard for children taking virtual classes or even for people trying to find a job.  Nowadays, many jobs require you to fill out an online application, she said.  And a lot of those people rely on their public libraries for access.  Generally, Levy County libraries have a 30 minute limit on internet use.

    “If you only have 30 minutes and your internet goes down twice, that's a big deal.”

For more information of the NFBA, go to www.nfba-fl.org.