October 11, 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.
Many telecommunications scholars have written that the first decade of the 21st Century is a "critical juncture" in communications history. An era where a confluence of national and global events, social movements, and political thinking combine with scientific advances to create exciting shifts in civil society. As Dr. Mark Cooper, Director of Research for the Consumer Federation of America writes, "every couple of generations capitalism plants the seeds of its own transformation by fostering waves of technological revolution."
Much like the advent of electricity, the telephone, or television, current advances in data communications are creating changes in our society far faster than we can document or comprehend. Thus, as Greg Richardson, Founder and Managing Partner for Civitium, discusses, "Given the scarcity of historical case studies and proven methods for success in this area, much of our work is 'cross-pollinating' information from community to community...efforts in this area are still in a period of intense experimentation." In essence, much like early electrical or telephone implementers, pioneers in the field of wireless networking are learning in real-time. Though many municipal decision-makers would rather see definitive answers and "tried-and-true" methodologies, the reality is that the technologies, business models, and uses of these networks are still rapidly evolving.
However, certain tools were consistently mentioned by those interviewed for this series as useful to digital inclusion efforts -- "more unlicensed spectrum," "low-cost hardware," and "education initiatives" for the general public and local, state, and national policy makers were all discussed by multiple interviewees. As Jim Snider, Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation, warns, for wireless systems, "the network can ultimately only be as good as the spectrum it uses." Many thought leaders see one promising avenue as the growing support for "bipartisan legislation in Congress to open up the TV white spaces for unlicensed use." According to Snider and others, these frequencies would provide new tools and resources for network implementers and greatly expand and enhance broadband implementation efforts across the country.
Several interviewees took an even more proactive approach, "shift federal funding and investment that may have previously been 'private sector subsidy-based,' such as universal service funding, over into programs that are aligned with community broadband initiatives and their leaders, recommends Greg Richardson. According to Richardson, this realignment would "stimulate public-private cooperation at a local level, specifically encouraging 'corporate social responsibility' on the part of the private partners that local government may work with." Harold Feld, Media Access Project's Senior Vice President, would certainly agree, "I would shift to a focus on user empowerment away from the traditional model which emphasizes compelling or incenting large providers to provide service -- create programs designed to diffuse technical knowledge and equipment within underserved communities and policies to empower local communities to self-provision."
Generally speaking, broadband access is seen as only one facet of the problem of digital exclusion. However, more holistic solutions are often seen as outside of the purview and responsibilities of Internet Service Providers. Angela Stuber, Executive Director of Grassroots.org, places the onus on national decision-makers. According to Stuber, in addition to expanding the availability of broadband, lawmakers and regulators should be funding digital literacy programs, educating the general public, and "ensuring