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Broader broadband
Groups try to stay ahead of feds on stimulus projects
If things go according to plan, free wi-fi in country parks could be on the way

Soon, a day at a park could replace a day at the office in parts of Chatham County, if the county's application for broadband stimulus money is approved.

When the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was signed into law by President Obama in February, $7.2 billion was set aside for expanding broadband internet access around the country, and now several local projects are hoping to receive some of those funds to stimulate high speed internet accessibility as well as the local economy.

Currently, the Georgia Technology Authority (GTA) is corralling applications from around the state through its website and trying to assist various projects prepare the necessary materials to successfully land some of the stimulus money.

"Georgia has taken the approach to put up a website," says Rich Calhoun, the GTA's Program Director for Broadband. "We're pretty unique with that aspect, because a lot of states aren't doing that."

Taking a more pro-active approach toward encouraging in-state applications for stimulus money is just part of several state-wide initiatives to improve broadband internet access in Georgia, including the Governor's Wireless Communities Georgia Program, which was approved by the state legislature in 2006. It's through the Wireless Communities Program that the City of Savannah received funds to install wi-fi along the MLK corridor, a project which has yet to be completed.

There is no amount of stimulus funds allocated for projects within Georgia, and nationally projects will be selected through a competitive grant application process, which is one reason why Calhoun and the GTA want to help the 91 projects statewide that have expressed interest to date.

Up to this point, they are working ahead of the federal government, who has yet to release guidelines for the broadband stimulus applications, although those should be available sometime this month according to the ARRA website

"We thought it would be the best way to be ready when the guidelines come out," Calhoun explains. "We're anticipating that if the states have a role, we want to be prepared to understand what projects we have in our state."

On the local level there are three projects currently preparing for the application process, including a Chatham County plan to make wireless internet available in several of the larger county-run parks, a plan by the Effingham School Board to install fiber optic cable connecting their current facility to their forthcoming Career Academy, and a plan by local non-profit All Walks of Life (AWOL) to expand their IT and Computer Recycling program.

According to Lewis Leonard, the County's Director of Information and Communication Services, their proposal would actually encompass several improvements. Besides wi-fi access in the parks, the project would provide infrastructure for a wireless data network dedicated to official County business, as well as provide the system necessary to install wireless surveillance cameras to improve security.

The Effingham Board of Education plan proposes to run five and a half miles of fiber optic wire to connect its current facility with a newly planned Career Academy. The cost of installing fiber optic cable can easily exceed $100,000 per mile.

The installation would not just benefit the school board though. "It would be a benefit to a lot of different organizations in the area just to have the infrastructure in place," explains Jim Lariscy, the IT Coordinator for Effingham's Board of Education. The broadband could also be utilized by the neighboring Savannah Tech campus as well as a nearby industrial park, which currently lacks high speed fiber connectivity.

Both the Chatham and Effingham plans would help stimulate the economy by creating short term jobs for contractors hired to install the networks, and the Effingham plan would create several more long term positions staffing its Career Academy, which would host advanced vocational training in a variety of fields.

AWOL's plan differs from the rest of the state's applicants because while the goal of most plans is to improve broadband infrastructure, AWOL's plan has more to do with community outreach, recycling computers to provide to low-income families in the area, so that they could utilize the newly created high speed infrastructure.

While these projects remain tentative until the federal government releases more information on application guidelines, if they are approved it could mean a significant increase in local internet access, as well as provide a much needed boost to the local economy. It could also allow some folks to pretend they were checking their email at work, while they were actually enjoying a day at the park.