September 29, 2006 By Sascha Meinrath
When do we recognize a shift in the fundamental social fabric of civilization? Where do we look to find better exemplars of participatory democracy? When do we realize that notions of justice have to expand to include a new ways of thinking about human rights? How do we change our institutions to support a more just and equitable world? These are the questions that thought leaders in the community and municipal wireless movement have been asking themselves more and more over the past few years.
An overarching theme that came up time and again during the interviews I conducted for this article is that we often think far too small when we talk about community networking. In a communications age, access to the resources, information, opportunities, and conversations that broadband services and community and municipal wireless networks facilitate is a vital element -- the foundation upon which the future of civil society rests.
The problem is to change the very nature of the municipal wireless debate -- incorporating a more liberatory language, more thoughtful actions, and the development and implementation of telecommunications infrastructures that directly improve the lives of users. At the heart of this debate is a tension between market economics and the "social contract" companies should be held to when providing critical resources to local communities. As Jim Baller, senior principal of the Baller Herbst Law Group, sums up, "digital inclusion is, or should be, a basic right of all Americans."
In citing the Declaration of Independence, Baller concludes that citizens have certain unalienable rights -- Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. "In the years and decades ahead, virtually everything that we do at work, in education, in public safety and homeland security, in medical care, in entertainment, in our communities, at the polls, etc., will depend increasingly on affordable access to advanced communications services and capabilities," states Baller. "No nation can lay claim to greatness without acting vigorously to ensure that none of its residents will be left out of the world."
What are the social and economic benefits of digital inclusion? Over the last few years, the importance of broadband services to communities has increased dramatically. Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press, puts it this way, "it is now beyond dispute that information and communications technologies bring advantages in education, job-training, social networking, health-care, and overall quality of life." However, accessing this critical resource is only one component of digital inclusion. As Scott relates, "Having the 'ICT trifecta' -- access to the Internet, the equipment to use it, and the skills to exploit it -- may well be the difference for many families between upward social mobility and a declining standard of living. For children especially, having access to technology is not a luxury, it is a social necessity."
The United States was founded on the notion of ubiquitous, equitable communications infrastructures. In fact, post-Independence, almost three-quarters of all federal employees worked for the Post Office. And the Post Office was built in response to the discriminatory policies prevalent at the time in the Royal Post of Great Britain. When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote "Democracy in America" in 1835, he praised the Postal Service and the newspapers and other information it conveyed as greatly responsible for the America's successes and the education of its populace. In discussing the Postal Service, de Tocqueville writes, "it is difficult to imagine the incredible rapidity with which thought circulates...It cannot be doubted that, in the United States, the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of the democratic republic."
Paralleling this analysis, Jim Snider, senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, states, "Democracy requires well educated citizens. The Internet has become a necessary