Wednesday, May 18, 2005

"Report: Bridging 'digital divide' "

The Advocate's article on the digital divide report, Bridging 'digital divide,' walks the reader through a good summary of many of the report's main points and is recommended for getting a quick fix on some of the more substantial points of the report. An example:

Another recommendation suggests the possibility of LUS providing a "basic" Internet service at a low bandwidth at "nominal cost or even no-cost," to increase the number of people on-line in Lafayette, the report says. The bandwidth should be sufficient for people to use e-mail or browse the Internet slowly.

Any public-private partnership or franchise using the LUS system for wireless service should also include a low-cost tier of service, the report says.


The report also calls for aggressive marketing any digital divide program and for Lafayette to develop a "strong, community-oriented Internet service provider, or ISP, possibly through a public-private partnership.

The ISP would develop local Internet content including employment opportunities, child-care services, housing availability, education opportunities, cultural and arts events, and local organization calendars.

Low- or no-cost Web-based programs for common applications, templates for things such as résumés and how to set up a Web presence could be made available through the program.

The discussion, what there was of it, centered on who would be served and the cost of serving them. (Disappointingly, no one chose to take up the ideas offered. Though in fairness the council was given little time to digest ideas.) My impression was that those asking were either concerned to limit the the cost by limiting the population served or to make sure that there was a real, monetary commitment to at least the poorest constituents.

The questions boiled down to: "Who will this serve and what will it cost?" And the answer, I think, is: "Everyone and less than you'd think, but still some real money." That's going to sound like an inadequate answer to both politcal camps--those wishing to limit the program for political reasons and those wishing to hard wire substantial funds for political reasons. For the first group "everyone" is scary. For the second group "less than you think" sounds suspiciously like an attempt to minimize the commitment. My own judgment is that both groups are missing the forest of our common purpose for the trees of familiar, almost knee-jerk concerns.

The big picture, the forest, is that Lafayette simply must find a way to utilize and expand the talents of all its people. For selfish reasons as well as alturistic ones we all want to live in a healthy, vibrant community of people eager to move themselves, their families, and the community as a whole forward. That requires that we serve everyone, and not simply the smallest number to which a benefit can be limited. There are portions of the report dealing with the provision of rebuilt computers or new, low-cost ones that are means tested. Those will benefit only the poorest. But the vast majority of the recommendations will benefit us all—but in differing degree. And therein lies the real story. Most of the recommendations are carefully crafted to avoid a demeaning means test. You can use the local "super" internet portal no matter who you are--but it will be most valuable to those looking for jobs, affordable child care and other local benefits. You can install a Linux disk and Open Office whether or not you own a full version of the latest Microsoft Office suite. You can take advantage of the very low-cost tier of internet service --if the speed trade-off in communicating with the world outside it is worth it to you. All of these things represent offering those with the least service currently access to the functionality that only the more wealthy can afford to afford today.

It shouldn't be an unfamiliar model. The daring experiment of offering everyone access to public education is, historians tell us, what turned a backwoods agricultural confederation into a continent-spanning powerhouse. The established nations of Europe with their lycee, gymnasia, and (not) "public" schools thought it a waste of resources to offer those possibilities to all—and their economies still suffer from having too-early restricted the potential of their citizens in the name of saving a little in educational funding. Access to the internet should be the same — something we offer all our citizens because it is the right thing to do...and because we are confident that the investment will benefit us all.

Offering these services takes only a little money and should be easy to justify simply on the grounds of making LUS' service more attractive. Only a few more subscribers would pay for the additional cost and this is precisely the sort of marketing logic that drives portals like Yahoo to offer extensive calendaring, gaming, and email for free...the distributed cost is so low that the traffic itself is all that is needed to pay the bill. We can do much better if we choose. It may only take a little money. What is takes a lot of is vision.

Going in this direction does not minimize the committment to bridging the digital divide any more than offering public education to all minimizes the committment to equal opportunity on which this nation is built. Instead it creates a constituency for these innovations that makes a continuing committment to the ideal all but certain. It is the muscular and determined path, one that has served us well throughout our history.

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