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What Are the Barriers to Digital Inclusion?



November 20, 2006 By

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.

Hannah Sassaman, Coordinator of the Prometheus Radio Project, points to "media consolidation, national franchising of digital video services, and bans on municipal communications" as barriers helping to prevent digital inclusion. According to Sassaman, "the watchword should be local determination of local communications policies." Education, outreach, and relevance are also vital. As Richard MacKinnon, President of Austin Wireless, points out, while "systemic exclusion must be addressed, we must also recognize that many people choose not to be included because they do not recognize the benefits nor do they have an immediate need for an electronic solution to their problems."

Time and again, those interviewed for this series pointed out that "nobody benefits" from digital exclusion -- yet, in our society, broadband services are inequitably distributed. According to Ben Scott, Policy Director for Free Press, "a third of the country has no Internet access of any kind, and another third is stuck with dial-up." The longstanding and historic nature of this problem supports the critique that this systemic problem has become institutionalized in our economic and regulatory structures -- "the market is an imperfect mechanism for delivering essential communications services. Providers will naturally gravitate toward business models that maximize return on investment. In monopoly and oligopoly markets, this leads to the systematic exclusion of low-income consumers," states Scott. "Moreover, there is little incentive above the bottom line to spend resources on technology training, equipment distribution, and digital inclusion."

According to Jim Baller, Senior Principal of the Baller Herbst Law Group, the systematic exclusion of certain constituencies are not due to maliciousness, per se, they are the logical outcome of specific economic imperatives, "a profit-maximizing firm has a fiduciary duty to serve the most lucrative possible markets first, and that will inevitably result in some degree of exclusion. Unfortunately, this approach will inevitably leave some segments of our society behind -- unless the public sector steps in with funding or services to close the gaps." Systematic exclusion that negatively impacts society as a whole is a problem we have seen previously in many market sectors -- Baller points to the advent of electricity as an important precursor of today's digital inclusion efforts, "thousands of communities did not obtain electricity until the Roosevelt Administration created the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935."

Nor is this problem limited to the United States, according to John Atkinson, Director of Wireless Ghana, Ghana's telecommunications market sector allows "companies with poor, overpriced services to flourish [because] there are few alternatives." This perspective is mirrored by Matthew Rantanen, Director of Southern California Tribal Technologies, who sees problems in systematic exclusion of Indian population here in the United States, "even with such programs as Universal Service, there are still voids in service with POTS [plain old telephone service] connections to the Indian Reservations in the country. Simple lifeline service is still unavailable to residents on some reservations in Southern California."

Yet, if we all benefit from digital inclusion, as commons-based economic modeling as well as empirical studies like the ones conducted by Dr. Sharon Gillette and others have shown, then we are all suffering negative consequences for the failure to expand digital technologies and connectivity. Catherine Settanni, Founder and Executive Director of the Digital Access Project, underscores the dynamic, "telecommunications companies that set prices for maximum profit, and redline poorer neighborhoods, might think they are


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