Thursday, November 18, 2004

Bond, The Digital Divide, and Trust

The most contentious issue of Tuesday's historic council meeting was the digital divide—the cluster of concerns about the way in which modern communications technologies have served to increase the gap between those that have in our society and those that do not. Dealing with that, or rather not dealing with it, has been the dark underside of glowing promise of our new, high-tech information society. Both two weeks ago and again last Tuesday Huval gave personal assurances that a plan that would satisfy those concerns would be developed in the next six months. The Advocate story had one bit of information that may prove politically crucial:

By January, LUS will likely ask the council for permission to ask the State Bond Commission for authority to issue the $111 million in bonds, LUS Director Terry Huval said.

This means that the vote on issuing bonds will take place before the date for the submission of a full plan for dealing with the digital divide issues. Agreement that those issues would be dealt with were crucial to the plan moving forward with near unanimity. Both the council and the public commenters showed strong support.

The bonds need to be issued as soon as is humanely possible since bond rates are rising. Each day of delay adds to the cost. Interest will be, as it is on any mortgage, by far the largest cost. Each extra increment of interest results in higher minimum prices for services. It is in the interest of all to keep the costs as low as possible and so it is in the interest of all to hope the bonds can be issued as quickly as possible for as little as possible.

Any thorough-going attempt to address digital divide issues will have to take longer than three months. It will, frankly, take longer than six months. Starting the process now is an unfortunate by-product of LUS defensive posture during the fiber fight here in Lafayette. A series of public meetings on fiber, which would have been the ideal way to have developed the project in the absence of unprincipled incumbent opposition would have brought this issue to the fore much earlier. The process of dealing with it now will be a matter of human timing and street level politics; not engineering. It can't be hurried and remain effective; it simply takes time to build the human relationships that are crucial in an endeavor this new and important. Because the issue is barely on the radar of most of the community bringing them up to speed and even getting started bringing people from different communities will take time.

So come January we will be faced with a vote where the strongest advocates of bringing our community together with a digital divide project will have to vote up or down on the whole project with, at best, only the barest outline of a real plan in place and the actual quality of the plan still building. There will likely be a couple of projects written into the budget that goes to the bonding authorities. What won't be in place at that time is the sort of unified, established and ongoing community effort that at least two councilmen pushed for and which was endorsed time and again during the public comments: A fully realized commitment for the community coming together to advance backed by publicly visible leadership and money.

When push comes to shove it will be a moment for trust. I think Mike in his blog entry on the meeting hit the nail on the head: in the end the council vote was, as much as anything, a vote to trust Terry Huval, the crew at LUS, and the history of the utility.

More trust will be what is called in January. Mustering that trust will go along way toward telling us whether fiber has actually begun to serve as a catalyst for community unity and progress that some of us hope it can be.

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