Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Digital Divide Returns—as it should

Just when you think it is safe to quite paying attention to council meetings for awhile....

Both LUS and various correspondents confirm that Chris Williams brought up the digital divide at last Tuesday night's council meeting. That issue was a major part of the discussion back in 04-05. He'd like to return to the promises made then and get an update. Huval promised to get back to him with a response during the March 27th meeting.

For those among us whose memories of that period are dimming: Back in the early days the digital divide was a big issue in securing the council's endorsement of the project. This was back before any referendum was planned. At the time it was assumed that the big political battle would be on the floor of the council. Over time it became pretty clear that the council was prepared to give its approval and the new goal was making approval unanimous if at all possible; the idea being for the community to present a united front in the face of anticipated incumbent oppositions. (This proved prescient.)

It was at that time that the digital divide issue became prominent. Everyone agreed that taking on that issue was something that could and should be done by LCG/LUS. Chris Williams wanted to see the green--he wanted a commitment that devoted real, hard cash to closing the digital divide in the financial plan. What exactly that money would be used for varied. But that always seemed secondary to securing the commitment by getting real dollars devoted to the principle. LUS and LCG resisted, in part for local political reasons, and in part for legal reasons. They didn't want to excite knee-jerk ideological responses from the right that might endanger support from councilmen that were more comfortable with economic development rationales than arguments about community betterment. The incumbents' new state law also imposed restrictions--at the time Lafayette wasn't going to have to go to a referendum, but if it restarted the process by posting a new financial plan that included digital divide elements it seemed likely that legal challenges from the incumbents would force delays and might well force a referendum that nobody local wanted. (The fear that the incumbents would use legal tools to force delays proved prescient too.)

What emerged was a digital divide committee convened by LUS that would come up with a document that the council could then endorse--that, the thinking went, would bind LUS to a real commitment to the digital divide and allay Williams and Benjamen's concerns that it was all window-dressing. And, of course, put off heated public disagreements to a later date.

The digital divide committee (full disclosure: I was a member) was composed of citizens who were all first concerned about the issue and were also variously suggested by councilmen, or were representatives of governmental agencies, nonprofits, and business interests. They meet and produced a report that was presented to the council on 5/17/o5. Members of the committee made short presentations, backed by a slideshow, and answered questions from the council.

That evening the council, by ordinance, endorsed "the principles and recommendations embodied in the committee’s study" and "called for LUS to incorporate elements of the report...into its Fiber for the Future project."

I've recently reviewed the report again and gone out and looked at similar documents from other cities. I honestly think Lafayette's stacks up well. For comparison purposes, check out San Francisco's recent work which, overall, takes a strikingly similar position on major issues.

The take-home is pretty simple. This issue is coming back—and it is fair that it should. Supporters of fiber—and supporters of Lafayette—will be aware that the full council made a strong commitment to a series of worthy principles. Both that commitment and Williams and Benjamen's final decision to let lie their request for a monetary obligation were decisions made in the interest of preserving community unity in the face of a well-funded and implacable outside opposition. It worked: every council district, and every part of the community voted strongly in favor of building a municipal fiber-optic network.

Now is the time to make good on the commitments that made our success possible.

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