Internet access still not available to all

September 15, 2011

By Sara DeForge Hough

WASHINGTON—Up to 10 percent of Americans lack access to basic Internet connections fast enough to download simple Web pages and videos, according to findings recently released by the federal government. The findings may cause state legislatures pushing for proposals to shift public notices to an entirely online medium, to reconsider.

The National Broadband Map (http://broadbandmap.gov/technology) from the U.S. Department of Commerce is the federal government’s first-ever comprehensive accounting of Internet access and speed information. It is formulated from data provided by Internet access providers, such as cable and telephone companies, and addresses only technological coverage, not other tangibles like price of service or customer interest and sophistication.

Advocates of legislation to move public notices to the Web often argue that the Internet is readily available and accessible. However, these findings suggest that the Internet may not be the best avenue to reach the most people.

“The National Broadband Map shows there are still too many people and community institutions lacking the level of broadband service needed to fully participate in the Internet economy,” said Lawrence E. Strickling, assistant secretary for Communications and Information and National Telecommunications and Infrastructure Agency Administrator.

These findings come at a cost—$220 million over five years. The map will be paid for with Recovery Act broadband funds and will be updated every six months.

Several proposals have already been introduced in state legislatures in 2011 to shift public notices entirely to the Web—primarily to sites operated by governments.

In Illinois, a bill has been filed to eliminate publication of all public notices in newspapers in favor of government entities, placing them on their own individual websites.

A bill in New Jersey would remove the requirement to publish legal notices in newspapers and instead permit the notices to be posted on a government website. The bill has received new momentum after it cleared a second committee by a vote of 4-1. There had been no new action on the bill, since it was approved by the Budget Committee last July.

And in Nebraska, there is a bill to permit city, county, and other public bodies to post public meeting notices online rather than publish in a newspaper. Solid response from newspapers in the Senate legislative hearing to consider the bill caused the proposal to be tabled. Similar action occurred in February in Washington state as bills to eliminate newspaper notice appeared to stall.

It has become clear that the public does not necessarily agree that moves to post notices entirely online are in citizens’ best interests.

In Utah, an amendment to the public notice law regarding notifications (SB 85) will be introduced in response to the law passed two years ago establishing the Utah Legal Notices website.

The goal of the amending legislation is to make sure the public is notified properly and reflects the wishes of the citizens. Findings from a recent survey revealed that citizens want legal notices to be published in both newspapers and online.

Currently in Utah, legal notices are published in a recognized newspaper and also on the Utah Legal Notices website. As of January 2012, existing law would eliminate the newspaper postings and preserve only the Internet versions. But the original sponsor of the law has had a change of heart and is now responding to Utah voters’ desires for continued newspaper notice. Observers in Utah caution that the session is ongoing and the fate of the public notice bill remains uncertain.

For more information about public notices, please refer to the Public Notice Resource Center at www.pnrc.net.

Sara DeForge Hough is manager of the Public Notice Resource Center. She can be reached at sara@nna.org.

 
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