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Remarks by Angela Simpson Deputy Assistant Secretary National Telecommunications and Information Administration

Education Exchange Kick-Off & Signing Ellijay, Georgia
August 28, 2014

Remarks by Angela Simpson
Deputy Assistant Secretary

National Telecommunications and Information Administration
Education Exchange Kick-Off & Signing
Ellijay, Georgia
August 28, 2014

—As Prepared for Delivery—

Thank you to the North Georgia Network, Parker FiberNet and ETC Communications for inviting me to speak at today’s ceremony to mark the official kick-off of Georgia’s new regional Education Exchange. I am thrilled to be able to share this day and this terrific milestone with you.  My name is Angela Simpson and I am the deputy administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). NTIA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is the principal advisor to the President on telecommunications and technology policy issues.

NTIA is honored to have been part of what has made today’s announcement possible through our broadband grant program – the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. This $4 billion grant program funded by the 2009 Recovery Act, invested in roughly 230 projects nationwide to expand access to and use of high-speed Internet services - including two of the three broadband networks that are joining forces today to launch the new Education Exchange in rural Appalachia.

We awarded a $33.5 million grant to the North Georgia Network to build a 1,100-mile fiber-optic network across 12 counties in the Appalachian foothills of North Georgia. And we awarded a $21.3 million grant to the Appalachian Valley Fiber Network to deploy more than 500 miles of fiber across the lower Appalachian Valley in Northwest Georgia and Eastern Alabama. In 2009, Vice President Biden kicked off announcement of our grants in nearby Dawsonville, so it’s great to be able to come back today and see all the great work done.

The original goal of these investments was to drive growth and create jobs in a place that was in danger of being left behind in today’s knowledge-based economy with the contraction or disappearance of businesses such as local textile mills, auto parts factories and construction trades. And we are seeing that vision become reality as the advanced communications infrastructure draws data centers, call centers and other information-age employers to the area.

Connecting local schools was an integral part of the master plan from the beginning. We know that economic development and education go hand-in-hand. To attract 21st century employers to the greatest extent possible, you knew then and know now that to succeed you need not only cutting-edge communications networks, but also a highly skilled, digitally literate workforce. So ensuring that local schools have the broadband speeds and technology tools as a foundational building block to prepare that workforce has been part of the equation since day one. That’s why our grant to NGN supported gigabit connections to eight K-12 districts, and the Appalachian Valley Fiber Network grant supported gigabit connections to schools in three districts and 10-gigabit connections to schools in a fourth.

One of our biggest hopes when we created the BTOP program was for the projects we funded to ultimately be sustainable — meaning that they continue and thrive after the grant project is finished and that they would be leveraged even further to provide local benefits to the communities they serve.  The Education Exchange collaboration we’re celebrating today is strong evidence of just the sort of sustainability we were hoping for.  It shows us, in addition to all of your hard work, that the BTOP funding sparked growth, return on investment, and momentum.  This all translates into tangible benefits for your communities.

Keeping that momentum going is what today’s announcement is all about as the North Georgia Network, Parker FiberNet and ETC Communications partner to launch Georgia’s first regional educational network.  Building on the original  investments in NGN and Appalachian Valley Fiber Network, the Education Exchange will be a 3,000-mile fiber-optic system that links 30 K-12 school districts with more than 330 facilities and more than 250,000 students. Those are some very powerful numbers that will help level the playing field between north Georgia schools and schools in much more urban areas with many more resources at their fingertips. The network will deliver gigabit connections to every participating school, and will allow the schools to share everything from web-based instructional resources to online course materials to video conferencing services over a 10-gigabit private education cloud.

We’ve already seen these types of collaborations yield impressive results in some of the BTOP projects we funded.  Leveraging power to connect many schools at high speeds for low cost is a best practice we’ve seen across the grant portfolio, and it appears to be a very wise investment in your communities’ futures.

Preparing our schools – and our teachers, students and parents – for tomorrow’s world of interactive, individualized digital learning is a key national priority of the Obama Administration. Last year, the White House set an ambitious goal to connect virtually all American students to ultra-fast broadband by 2017. The President’s ConnectED initiative would bring high-speed Internet connections and wireless access to K-12 schools nationwide, incorporate educational technology into classrooms and provide teachers with the training needed to make the most of these valuable digital tools. The Federal Communications Commission is now tackling the connectivity piece of the puzzle with a proceeding to reform and modernize the E-Rate program, which funds Internet access in schools and libraries.  Last month, it made changes to spur additional broadband in schools focusing on expanding funding for Wi-Fi networks within K-12 schools. It is dedicating $1 billion a year for the next 5 years into Wi-Fi for schools. It puts initiatives like your Education Exchange in really good shape to take the broadband capacity you are bringing to the schools and help permeate the schools with wireless broadband everywhere. 

And we’ve seen the private sector step up in a big way to support the ConnectED initiative in a way that is very reaffirming to the importance of the ultimate goal.  Software companies like Esri will provide $1 billion of free access to its ArcGIS tool so every K-12 school will be able to map and analyze data, Adobe is providing $300 million in software and teacher training, Microsoft is discounting its devices and software, and Prezi is providing $100 million in presentation software to schools.  Device maker Apple is providing $100 million in devices to economically disadvantaged schools.  And service providers are helping students with broadband at home valued at over $300 million to extend schoolwork to homework. We are really happy that the ConnectED initiative in part sprang out of the broadband investments we made. Ensuring that our nation’s schools – particularly those in the most remote parts of the country – can keep pace with schools in the rest of the world in the 21st century was an important objective of our broadband grants program from the very beginning.

Network infrastructure projects funded by our broadband grants are linking approximately 10,000 schools to broadband, and almost 70 percent of them are getting access to speeds of at least 100 megabits per second. That’s the type of connectivity needed to pipe online video and other high-bandwidth applications into multiple classrooms with dozens of computers and tablets logged on at once. Indeed, the State Educational Technology Directors Association projects schools will need Internet connections of one gigabit per second for every 1,000 students and staff by the 2017-18 school year.

Through broadband investments, we have witnessed the power of technology to transform education. We have seen broadband enrich the learning experience by enabling schools to replace bulky textbooks with laptops or tablets and migrate away from paper-and-pencil drills to more interactive, more engaging online instructional content that incorporates video and other multimedia. We have watched teachers leverage web-based curriculum materials to customize lesson plans for students at different learning levels and let students study at their own pace. And we have observed how virtual classrooms can complement and augment what’s happening in real-world classrooms by giving teachers an online platform to post lesson plans, make homework assignments and even lead electronic discussions.

Perhaps most important, we have seen broadband level the educational playing field by bringing Advanced Placement classes, foreign language programs and other specialized courses to poor inner-city campuses and small rural schools that otherwise might not have the resources to offer these options. With today’s launch of the Education Exchange, schools, students, teachers and parents across this lovely corner of Appalachia will experience these benefits first hand.

As our broadband grant projects wind down, we at NTIA want to continue to work with communities nationwide to support these efforts and keep moving the needle on broadband access and adoption. We’re here to help, and we’re excited about the opportunities.

Before I close, I’d like to say a few words about what comes next for NTIA’s broadband program now that are grants are winding down. As I mentioned earlier, our goal moving forward is to leverage the initial BTOP investments to compound the benefits. We at NTIA want to help you, and communities just like you across the country, in your efforts to expand broadband access and adoption. Bruce Abraham was kind enough to join us at one of our initial workshops to start this capacity building activity, and we thank you very much for doing it.  So building on the lessons learned and best practices from across our grant portfolio, we will be sharing our knowledge and expertise with other communities seeking to expand their broadband capacity and utilization. We envision using everything from toolkits and training programs, to webinars, wikis and workshops, to providing technical assistance, networking opportunities, funding leads, and basic guidance for communities going down this path. We would love to hear from you about what we can do to support community broadband efforts here in Georgia and nationwide.

Thank you again for inviting me to participate in today’s ceremony. And congratulations to everyone who made this new education network possible.