Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Media Roundup/Digital Divide

The Advocate and the Advertiser both run the expected story on tonight's council vote, both outlining the procedures, and pointing to a yes vote. The Advertiser has a bit more, revealing Councilman Williams' threat to vote no unless some sort of explicit provision to provide remedies for the digital divide issues that concern him are included.

I hope that is all grandstanding. I've done some work in this area and LUS is correct when they say that the most intractable part of the digital divide problem is availability and the price of access. What LUS has promised in a rock-solid way to do in terms of universal service (everyone will have access) and price (a substantial cut in prices) will accomplish in one stroke what has led to the failure of many otherwise well-designed projects to narrow the digital divide. Voting against this would mean the councilman would also be voting against cheaper cable access for his folks. It doesn't make sense. I'd have been happier seeing some sort of language in the feasibility study and it not being there was a real political mistake on the part of LUS; it was one of the things I went looking far as well and was disappointed not to find after the early promises. Of course, the shape of our feasibility study was a result of LUS adopting a defensive posture about putting anything substantial that was not required in the feasibility study. That seemed unwise to me at the time, and I said so. This fracas is one result of that decision. Still, it is my sense that LUS can be trusted on this. They have shown initiative about getting outfront with innovative ways to provide price relief for poorer families on the electricity front—a point Huval pointedly made in an exchange with Williams last Tuesday, and which Williams conceded—and it would seem that this would buy LUS some credibility on this issue.

On the other hand, I'd like to see LUS give Williams something to take home since they've promised, and I believe intend, to address this issue. The problem is that it is hard to see just what the mechanism would be—this is supposed to be an up or down vote on accepting a feasibility plan that has already been deposited and this process is fairly tightly regulated by state law.

I just hate to see a game of chicken being played with this issue. It is far too important.


ricky said...

re: the digital divide

My own thought is that computer ownership is one of the most pressing obstacles to reducing the digital divide. At the outset of this LUS plan to provide fiber to the home they also discussed renting cheap computers that could serve essentially as internet boxes to customers who didn't own their own pcs. In the Council meeting last week, during one of the few parts I managed to watch on television, a spokesperson answered Williams's question with an allusion to this as something that might be in the future for LUS, but it didn't sound particularly serious.

I believe you also mentioned it in a post after the first meeting. What's your take on whether or not this is a realistic possibility for the future of this project?

John said...

Greetings Ricky,

With fingers crossed I do believe that this some sort of computer purchase/lease enabling project will be an intergal part of the rollout. LUS, IMHO opinion, flubbed this by not including at least a mention in the feasibility study. In their defense that isn't the level of detail they've provided for anything else and the feasibility study is rather transparently a device to comply with state law. Ironically I think we would have gotten a more informative peice without a law mandating it. That initial, very real, very scary event in the legislature got LUS down into a minimal information crouch from which it has never emerged. The whole process has been much, much less than it should have been and could have been.

'Bout computers: my own experience has been that computers are not as difficult a problem to solve as is basic cost and access. If you want higher penetration the monthly bill has got to be managable. Perfectly good computers, useful for basic office-type computing and for internet browsing can be had these days in the 300 dollar range. Check out WalMart.com. Used computer's of the same horsepower can be had for less. A group of motivated kids can scavange/build a good machine for next to nothing; I know, I've been involved in projects in Delaware where we did just that.

'Bout the council meetings and the response to Williams. I interpreted that exchange a little differently. I think Williams pushed for explicit acknowledgement at today's meeting of his concerns. He stopped short at that time of demandng it but the newspaper today reports it as a demand. That may be wrong, of course—we both know the Advertiser. Huval pushed back saying that he felt that something for the digital divide _was_ included in the current plan: access and price. (I think he is right.) Williams wanted something more and alluded to doubts and his perception of slowness on the part of a price relief program on electricity. Huval pointedly and with pretty clearly controlled anger pointed out that this was an LUS initiative. (Implying that his heart was in the right place and this attack was unfair.) Williams didn't back off his slowness claim but to his credit made sure to give LUS its props, saying explicitly that it had been their idea. Huval promised a good strong plan within six months after today's approval, should it come. That would almost certainly allow Willams a chance to kick about this if he is not satisfied when the bond issues start to come up for votes on the council and Huval was offering his word as a sign of his committment. --a sort of give this to me today and I will give you grounds to take a shot at me grounded in my clearly stated committement today. A tit for tat. I don't like all this "indirect speech" but I do (think) I understand it.

I think they both want it but both parties are prone to resentments. It'd be better for us all if they'd get that out of the way.

Another digital divide thought: I believe that more intractable than either access/cost issues or computer provision is integrating this level of access into all our Lafayette communities. Many, many more people don't use the net because they don't realize the potential value than are restrained by cost of access or computers. To some extent they are right: what they need for straightforward local needs is not available or is difficult to access. The internet does nto speak their language and does not speak to their concerns in an easily visible way. That needs to change. Additionally, there are real social, on-the-ground infrastructure needs. There could be a very healthy little computer setup, clean-up, and repair business that kids and adults could get into at the neighborhood level if cheap computers were widespread. That, too, is doable but will take some paying attention and providing seed locations and situations where the initial skills can be acquired.

I really believe we can work on this, develop easily accessible local content and use the net to bolster the pride and identity of all our local communities. There are both online and offline structures that could be set up to encourage this but it takes work and finacial support. It's something I believe in, believe my background could help in the design of, and intend to work for actively.

You'll seem more aggressive stuff on the digital divide here after the vote tonight.

Finally:To my mind addressing the digital divide issue progressively will be a much bigger deal than anyone thinks. Being successful at something like this will go a long way toward convincing companies that might want to come in that Lafayette, though conservative, is progressive. The formula to date for bringing core Seattle or California-style high tech companies to the south has been to attract them to a place with a strong university and a strong progressive tradition. Both Austin and the research triangle near Raliegh fall into this category. If we want to succeed in that game we will have to convince folks that there is a progressive pro-social side to Lafayette.

This is _the_ way to do it.