On November 29th, I headed to the THEARC (billed as “the only theater east of the Anacostia River in Washington, DC”) to participate in the digital access townhall created by my co-fellows Je’Nein and Ashley. The panel line up was formidable. Maxie Jackson, Public Media Corps Board Member and the President and CEO of the National Federation for Community Broadcasters moderated the evening.
The other panelists were Sherry Dawson of the FCC, Bryan Sivak of the DC Office of Technology, Clarence Labor of the One Computer/One Child Program and the Bloomingdale Wi-Fi network, and Nikki Peele, who runs the blog Congress Heights on the Rise and owns reSpin, a public relations marketing firm.
The evening began with a short presentation by Ashley and Je’Nein on attitudes toward the internet in their community:
Despite our technical difficulties (the cameras would not sync to the Ustream broadcast, resulting in diminished broadcast quality, and our text based polling idea never got off the ground) the panel was a lively one. The audience had a range of topics they wanted to discuss spanning everything from the class implications of technology to how to get a free computer to use at college. Dawson discussed Obama’s plan for broadband access and how it was crucial to get every American onboard with the idea of the internet. Sivak discussed the DC government’s role in increasing access and explained their plans for bridging the digital divide. Labor talked about the implications of his One Computer/One Child program and how it helped children and adults alike discover more opportunities for themselves online. Labor also talked a bit about the Bloomingdale Wi-Fi network, which started out of a desire to have more people give access to their neighbors. He mentioned that a few of the “bullet proof plexiglass” carryouts in the area had converted into coffee shops and cafes, thanks to the new found need for places to access the free wi-fi. Nikki Peele discussed the realities of becoming a blogger, noting that she was just one person who needed a trash can, and realized that taking her grievances to the internet could be one route to speeding up the notoriously slow process. After two years, there is a network of East of the River* blogs, and Peele is the owner of a PR Firm.
However, what interested me most was the side conversation happening on Twitter. I was live tweeting the panel, and after a while my readers began to pick up on the ideas we discussed. The conversation on Twitter evolved into three distinct threads:
1. How mobile contributes to bridging the digital divide
2. The role of teachers in determining the digital standards of any college class
3. The idea that the internet is revolutionary, which is not necessarily agreed upon.
Many commenters on twitter pointed out the obvious elephant in the room: the high cost of access. While many of us on the panel focused on the transformative power of the online world, Tracy Murray noted:
@rosie1300 @racialicious I often forget how many !ack Internet access. A computer is a 1x expense – monthly access fees r often 2 much
The comments were something I wrestled with, since the beginning of the Corps. When we applied, there was a question about improving broadband access at a housing project. We were asked to respond to a hypothetical situation where a group of broadband company representatives wanted to come to a townhall held at a housing project – however, only 25% of the residents signed up for the service, and many were frustrated with the cost and technical issues.
I wrestled with how I wanted to answer, but in the end I wondered why there was a focus on getting every single person in this public housing complex to purchase their own access, instead of working to provide community access points, like free wireless throughout the building or a few different business centers that came equipped with computers and printers.
This sentiment was echoed on the panel by enthusiastic support for the Bloomingdale Wi-Fi project, a community based initiative where WiFi blankets the neighborhood. Clarence Labor, who lives in Bloomingdale, discussed how the idea began. The idea initially was for neighbors with means to provide an open network that others could piggyback on – with enough open networks, the burden wouldn’t fall so heavily on a few, and it would allow more access within the neighborhood. Most of the reporting on the project revolved around the DC Office of Technology becoming involved; however, this project already had strong roots within the neighborhood.
Coming from Maryland, one of the examples I thought was worth following would be one from the city of Bethesda. All local libraries have wireless access for laptops, as well as desktop computers that can be used in one hour blocks. But in Bethesda specifically, the city funded signal is so strong, it blankets most of the downtown area. It also had an interesting effect on local commerce. Since most places can access the Bethesda network, there are a lot of people who decide to have lunch in the cafes and coffee shops in order to access the wireless. Many local businesses still offer their own wireless access points, but because Bethesda has sponsored free access, other places have dropped the payment aspect.
This has allowed a lot more people to stay online – unfortunately, this type of program is not in neighborhoods that need this type of access the most. The DC Office of Technology wants to find a way to support Bloomingdale, but there are disputes over taking on some of the financial burden.
I believe a targeted plan to decrease the digital divide works best when we focus on wireless and mobile, particularly when partnered with programs that distribute free computers to those in need. Broadband access is currently the buzzword, but as we continue work in these communities, the distinctions become clearer and clearer.
Many people do not want broadband access, not because they do not feel that it is important, but because they don’t see a need for ongoing, continuous access. Many of the people we spoke to used a combination of access at work, their mobile phones, and the library to take care of what they needed to online, and didn’t see the need to add an extra $75 a month for the privilege of being online.
So my hypothesis is that the disconnect (“yes, broadband is important; no I don’t have it at home”) is due to the difference between light consumption, heavy consumption, and creation. Broadband access is only necessary if you are a heavy consumer or content creator. Activities like downloading films and movies, searching for media, playing online games, or watching live streams are best done over a stable, consistent connection. And media creators, those of us with blogs or YouTube channels, game designers, or people who work in industries that lend themselves to technology also see a need for a connection that is always available.
However, for many people, online access is only for a few distinct tasks. For many, it is Facebook or MySpace, email, and maybe one or two favorite websites. Their information systems do not revolve around online sources, but traditional and community media sources. And so the transition there would be difficult.
People have to see a need to have a constant connection before they will be ready to shell out the cash for broadband.
The panel ended before we could explore any of these topics in depth, but the conversation is ongoing.
*Note: “East of the River” is a common phrase in DC, used to refer to anywhere east of the Anacostia river, an area in DC often overlooked in policy discussions and visited by news crews solely to document violent crime. This is a part of the larger phrase “East of the River, West of the Park” which refers normally to the stark divide between the haves and have nots in DC.